Louis Armstrong

Jim Santella By

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Louis Armstrong's New Orleans
Thomas Brothers
Hardcover; 386 pages
ISBN: 0393061094
W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Much has already been written about the life of Louis Armstrong. We've got a clear picture of the New Orleans marching bands and the performance hall music that influenced him as a child. We know that his introduction to the bugle and cornet at the Colored Waif's Home, and later the work that he accomplished with Fate Marable's bands on the Mississippi River, led Armstrong to higher ground. Under the leadership of bandleader Joe Oliver, he learned everything that he needed to know in order to begin one of the greatest careers in jazz. The whole world was eventually at his fingertips.

Thomas Brothers' book places its focus on the trumpeter's early experiences in New Orleans. As a child, he learned gradually and accepted many influences before finding an instrumental voice of his own. He also sang on the street corner with a group of young friends, realizing some of the best experiences that one can imagine.

Besides the traditional learning experiences, Brothers follows young Armstrong through his daily activities—enthralled by rag men tooting tin horns, watching bands on advertising wagons, getting involved with strolling vocal quartets, street corner guitarists, brass bands, serenading bands, lawn parties, funerals and parades.

With an assist from numerous black and white photos from the era, roughly 1901 through 1922, the author describes in detail what New Orleans was like when Armstrong was developing. By age 14 he had been hired to play the blues at a local honky-tonk late into the wee hours. The blues and ragtime were commonplace in the city. So were various other forms that Armstrong either accepted or rejected. Brothers talks about vernacular music, and how much of an effect this local music had on young Armstrong. Throughout the book, he uses conjecture to draw conclusions and backs them up.

Armstrong rarely saw his father when he was growing up, but he sometimes watched him perform as the grand marshal in parades. His mother took him to local church services with the Sanctified Saints congregation. Hence, both Armstrong's mother and his father brought something to the young boy's developing musical opinions.

Throughout the book, Brothers repeatedly draws the line between lighter-skinned Creoles and the darker-skinned community from which Armstrong emerged. Race and color affected the conditions under which he developed. The author relies on commentary from those who were there for his conjecture, which comes to us convincingly. While the scope of the book is narrow, encompassing Armstrong's musical development before reaching age 21, Brothers does a good job of analyzing, describing and explaining all that was happening to influence him as a young man.


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