Picks and Pans Review: Satchmo

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gary Giddins

Like jazz, which he almost single-handedly elevated to a popular art form, Louis Armstrong was brash and irreverent and all too often misunderstood. In a 1983 Armstrong biography, James Lincoln Collier concluded that fame forced the trumpet player to compromise his music and become "primarily an entertainer." Gary Giddins, perhaps the best contemporary writer on jazz, dismisses such facile criticism as bunk. Having studied Armstrong's music in detail and plumbed a trove of previously unexamined journals and personal manuscripts written by the prolific musician, Giddins writes admiringly of a man whose talents as a virtuoso trumpet player and irrepressible stage personality were inseparable. Armstrong, Giddins recalls, rose from a rough-and-tumble childhood spent amid the bordellos and honky-tonks of New Orleans to become one of the first black men in America who had the courage and clout to say, "I wouldn't play no place I couldn't stay" He was an unabashed sensualist who married four times, loved rich food and smoked pot every day "because it makes you feel good, man, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro." Armstrong's almost self-satirizing, teeth-baring manner of mugging for the camera was misinterpreted at times as a vestige of Uncle Tomfoolery, but he brazenly risked his career in the late '50s—or at least used the platform his musical success had created—by speaking out for civil rights. Like Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, for which Giddins won an American Book Award in 1988, this beautifully designed book is full of never-published photographs—in this case from Armstrong's scrapbooks. It is a treasure worthy of both the genius and gentle spirit of Armstrong, of whom his friend Duke Ellington once said, "He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone on the way." (Dolphin/Double-day, $24.95)

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