Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart

Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart
By Michael A. Schuman
Enslow Publishers

As “Ambassador Satch,” Louis Armstrong’s worldwide recognition and popularity reached levels seen only for figures like Muhammad Ali. He is considered the most influential jazz instrumentalist and vocalist, yet was often misunderstood by younger generations during his later years. Those highlights and controversies of Armstrong’s career are economically elucidated for young readers (sixth grade and up) in Michael Schuman’s Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart.

Given Armstrong’s role as an original jazz innovator, it is understandable that the book is weighted more heavily towards Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans and Chicago. Schuman starts with the fateful telegram from King Oliver that would bring Armstrong to Chicago, writing: “Jazz historians say that Armstrong’s life can be divided into two distinct periods: before he received Oliver’s telegram, and after he received the telegram.” (p. 11)

Schuman gives a straight forward factual account of the arc of Armstrong’s life (although Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans differs in some details of his childhood years, review forthcoming). If there is one deficiency, it is his treatment of Armstrong’s actual music. Schuman does explain Armstrong’s enormous vocal influence, if not actually inventing scatting during a performance of "Heebie Jeebies," as widely reported, than certainly popularizing and perfecting it. Yet there is little discussion of Armstrong’s groundbreaking role shaping the conception of the jazz solo.

On delicate issues, such as Armstrong’s use of “When It’s Sleep Time Down South,” Schuman is reasonably deft at explaining the controversy to young readers. Schuman explains: “To some, the lyrics celebrated the stereotypes white people had of African Americans,” while “To Armstrong, the song was simply the tale of a man like himself who left the South to make good in the North.” (p. 69) Later Schuman also explains the significance of Armstrong’s criticism of the Federal government’s slow response to the attempts to block Arkansas school integration, which for many would dispel their discomfort with the Armstrong of “Sleepy Time.”

It is certainly valuable to have a volume about a man of Armstrong’s stature available to students. However, it should be accompanied in school libraries by Armstrong’s recordings as well. Unless students hear “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” and “Potato Head Blues” they will not truly understand or appreciate the Armstrong legacy.