What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years

Ricky Riccardi. Pantheon, $28.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-307-37844-6
The legendary jazz trumpeter's final decades were not a collapse into lame minstrelsy, as critics complain, but a musical efflorescence, according to this exuberant biography. Journalist Riccardi surveys Armstrong's postwar career, during which he churned out recorded covers of forgettable pop tunes, got labeled an Uncle Tom for his grinning, clowning, eye-rolling antics before white audiences, and infuriated jazz purists by making signature tunes out of bland ballads like "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World." Riccardi's Satchmo is certainly an eccentric coot, what with his epic marijuana and laxative habits. (He recommended the latter as a cure-all to President Eisenhower and Grace Kelly.) But he's also a consummate entertainer who knew what audiences wanted, took seriously his role as cultural ambassador, and vocally challenged racist conventions. Indeed, Riccardi argues, Armstrong's alleged musical decline actually produced his greatest jazz albums—the author's exegeses of these, based on session tapes, make for a luminous exploration of Armstrong's musicianship—and, yes, some sublime pop standards as well. Riccardi's narrative sometimes bogs down in the minutiae of touring, recording, and overlong reminiscences. But his lively prose and warm engagement with the music make this a satisfying appreciation of Armstrong's legacy. Photos. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/04/2011
Release date: 06/01/2011
Open Ebook - 301 pages - 978-0-307-37923-8
Paperback - 364 pages - 978-0-307-47329-5
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