cover image Louis Armstrong's New Orleans

Louis Armstrong's New Orleans

Thomas Brothers, . . Norton, $26.95 (386pp) ISBN 978-0-393-06109-3

In this many-sided chronicle of Armstrong's early life, Brothers (Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words ) paints a passionate, intimate picture of the teeming musical brew of early 20th-century New Orleans and how it was uniquely suited to nurture both jazz and Armstrong's exceptional musical talents. "Armstrong lived a childhood of poverty, on the margins of society, and this position put him right in the middle of the vernacular traditions that were fueling the new music of which he would eventually become one of the world's greatest masters," Brothers writes. As he shows in his erudite narrative, "Little Louis" was influenced by a number of local factors: the heterophonic singing in his mother's Sanctified church; the blues music of "rags-bottles-and-bones" men who played on three-foot-long tin horns; the sights he witnessed peeking into Funky Butt Hall, where "chicks would get way down, shake everything"; and the ubiquitous marching bands that provided music for parties, dances, parades and, famously, funerals. Brothers's contention that Armstrong was immersed in this vernacular music comes across more strongly than it does in other biographies. Armstrong's music, Brothers says, was "shaped by the complex social forces surrounding him," ranging from Jim Crow oppression to Creole separation. The integration of biography, musical history and cultural study make this a rich, satisfying and thought-provoking read. 16 pages of illus. (Mar.)