Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers; Norton, 594 pages ($39.95). Something altogether wondrous has happened in the last few months. We are getting massive and valuable biographies of some of what might be fashionably termed “tentpole” figures in jazz history. Released almost simultaneously were Terry Teachout’s near-definitive biography of Duke Ellington (following his life of Louis Armstrong “Pops”) and Stanley Crouch’s long-awaited first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker.
Now, in clear anticipation of Black History Month is another mammoth biography of Armstrong after Teachout’s splendid and masterful “Pops.”
Thomas Brothers is not only an Armstrong specialist with two books of Popsiana already to his credit but is a professor of music at Duke. Unlike Teachout’s, then, his massive, near-600 page book is more academic indeed, steeped in material of Armstrong’s contemporaries and protracted musical examination. His title, for one thing, isn’t the point of view of 21st century academe but rather Armstrong’s actual billing at an October 1931 gig in Memphis’ legendary Peabody Hotel: Louis Armstrong “Master of Modernism and Creator of His Own Song Style.”
It is Brothers’ understanding of Armstrong that in his all-important 20s, “the modern master himself is very black – which is to say, first, that he has very dark skin, and second that he is culturally very black. He does not disguise this cultural allegiance. To the contrary he has found ways to glorify it while reaping tremendous financial rewards.”
Here, for instance, is Brothers about the beginning of what is often called a “perfect” recording, Armstrong’s “West End Blues:” “Armstrong’s display of individual power reaches the level of a proclamation of military victory, with a buglelike ascent, a bravura hold at the lofty peak, speed and extended range to communicate technical strength, precise and intricate passage work, brilliance of tone – it all comes across as a heraldic flourish appropriate to a battlefield, which is precisely what ancestors of the trumpet were invented to do.” Not for everyone, especially compared to Teachout’s “Pops,” but a remarkable and important book.
– Jeff Simon