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Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life

Jim Santella By

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Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life
Laurence Bergreen
1997
ISBN 0-7366-4103-3

Laurence Bergreen paints both a comprehensive and factual summary of the life of Louis Armstrong. He backs up what he says with quotes. Armstrong was a writer. He kept copious notes. The artist bought his first typewriter in 1922 and wrote on it just about every night. Those personal recollections, coupled with those of musicians with whom Armstrong worked, make for a very substantial biography.

Those who’ve been quoted include Baby Dodds, Jack Teagarden, Danny Barker, Clark Terry, Max Kaminsky, Buck Clayton, Wellman Braude, Earl Hines, Mezz Mezzrow, and Rex Stewart. Armstrong’s personal life and his public career are traced from his earliest recollections. In his early years, he had a tenor voice and enjoyed singing. He tells of catching a cold and developing a throat condition that led to the gravel-laden voice that we know so well.

As the grandson of slaves, Armstrong knew about social practices from his region. As with many books about jazz, this one cites numerous instances of racial bigotry. Throughout his life, Armstrong feared three things: the hate of racism, the greed of urban mobsters, and his many women. First wife, Daisy Parker, would chase him with a razor. Second wife, Lil Hardin, looked over him like a mother hen. Third wife, Alpha Smith, fought with him violently in the end. His fourth wife, with whom he remained in bliss to the end, shared his bright outlook about life in general. It’s true that Armstrong was born to be happy. He lived to perform. He lived to make others happy. His true theme song should have been “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” because that’s the way he felt about things. Sure, marijuana tempered that outlook, but Armstrong lived a “Wonderful World” for 70 years and enjoyed every minute of it.

Since this edition of Bergreen’s book appears on audiocassette, you’re drawn into the various dialects and scenic language. Michael Kramer holds your attention throughout. A search of local public library books on tape revealed only a few about music or musicians. This particular Armstrong biography, however, seems to be available everywhere.

Books On Tape
Books On Tape, Inc.; P.O. Box 7900; Newport Beach, CA 92658
1998
Fifteen 90-minute audiocassettes
Read by Michael Kramer

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