Picks and Pans Review: Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life

updated 09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 01:00AM

by Laurence Bergreen

Pops got the party started. With notes aimed at heaven and a gravelly, unforgettable voice, Louis Armstrong, an impoverished black child from turn-of-the-century New Orleans, championed jazz improvisation, influenced singers as diverse as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby and introduced an argot that gradually transformed America's everyday language. What biographer Laurence Bergreen enthusiastically pursues here, however, is the story of the man, not the music. While fully acknowledging Armstrong's role in founding what is now considered American high art, Bergreen dwells on him as the personification of the music's low-art beginnings in brothels and funeral marches, in a world of razor-wielding prostitutes, mobsters and marijuana smoke. The result is a vivid yet uneven assemblage of information, some from Armstrong's unpublished letters and diaries, as well as from the author's interviews. Ultimately, much of Bergreen's tome is impressive and entertaining, but this portrait of an icon may give aficionados the heebie-jeebies. (Broadway, $30)

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