cover image Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

Laurence Bergreen. Broadway Books, $30 (576pp) ISBN 978-0-553-06768-2

Bergreen, who has published studies of James Agee, Irving Berlin and Al Capone, comments here, ""This is the first biography I have written in which my opinion of my subject kept improving as I worked."" This strong admiration for the great jazz pioneer (1900-1971) is apparent throughout his meticulously researched, vibrant biography; and though there is no shortage of books on Armstrong, this biography has the potential to become the definitive word on his life and remarkable career. Bergreen, working with Armstrong's own--though not always reliable--memories in his taped reminiscences, letters and diaries as well as secondary sources, presents a vivid picture of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, where the musician was born in direst poverty. We see young Louis struggling to keep himself afloat among gangsters and prostitutes, teaching himself the cornet as a way of calling attention to the coal cart he drove for a Jewish family who adopted him, turning himself, by innate musical genius and enormous force of will, into the trumpet virtuoso he became when barely out of his teens. In the 1920s, his small groups set a standard for imaginative, free-wheeling jazz with a power, humor and intensity that has seldom been matched. Though in later years Armstrong relaxed into schticks, especially in his gravelly-voiced singing and clowning, his instrumental mastery remained awesome. Incorrigibly optimistic and good-hearted, he spent as freely as he earned (though unfortunately filling the pockets of a boorish manager far more than his own); and throughout the darkest days of American racism he served as a beacon of possibility for all races. It's an epic American story, told with great warmth, skill and understanding. Photos not seen by PW. (July)