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Book Reviews

Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz

By Published: February 8, 2005
Frustratingly, none of that is enough to convince Whiteman's many non-believers that his recorded output has real merit. Things will always come down to the music. And while Paul Whiteman's music is marked by flights of great ambition and numerous moments of legitimate jazz, and continues to be loved by many (yours truly included), those looking for jazz's true, undistilled essence will always turn to Louis Armstrong first. Whiteman may have been the King of the Jazz Age, but Armstrong sits forever on the throne of the music itself, unassailable.

Which is not to say this book is devoid of worthwhile content. The recounting of Whiteman's inexplicable 1926 U.K. billing as "The Mussolini of the Ragtime World" is certainly surreal. The passages on far-flung Satchmo disciples Louis Bannet ("the Dutch Louis Armstrong") and Eddie Rosner ("the Russian Louis Armstrong"), along with the tales of Armstrong's brushes with racist cops in the Deep South, are fascinating. And the quotes in defense of Whiteman by Red Norvo and Duke Ellington are truly eye-opening. Anyone interested in early jazz will find it worth a look.

But it would've been really gratifying to have a coherent, well made case to throw at those who so wholly discount Paul Whiteman's importance to jazz history and what innovations he did make. Sadly, "Two Kings of Jazz," due to careless editing or perhaps an unclear agenda on the part of its author, turns out to be 250 pages of blown opportunity. Instead of foolishly trying to vindicate Whiteman by attempting to define him in the same way one defines Armstrong, Berrett should have focused on one or the other, or perhaps given them each their own half of the book. And then let someone else write it. The angle of skipping back and forth, showing how Armstrong's and Whiteman's paths crossed, both in their approaches to music and in their personal lives, could have been engaging. Instead, it's a rambling ride without a compass. And scant payoff in the way of valid lines of reasoning.

While not as extensively devoted to Whiteman, Richard Sudhalter's seminal "Lost Chords" remains the number one place to get a clear grip on the big man's true significance. As for Armstrong, there's certainly enough out there already, but Gary Giddins' "Satchmo" and Laurence Bergreen's "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life" top the heap.

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