Friday, August 24, 2007

Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans
By Thomas Brothers
W.W. Norton tradepaper

Jazz historians have generally subscribed to the “great man” theory of history, placing prominent innovators like Armstrong and Ellington in the Jazz Pantheon. Their contributions are seen as not just revolutionary, but deliberate and singular to their genius. Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans takes a different approach, placing more influence on Armstrong’s environment and how it shaped his music.

Brothers’ book is not a biography per se, but rather a cultural examination of the Crescent City during the years Armstrong lived there. There are certainly details of the early formative events of Armstrong’s life, like his first proper musical instruction and organized band experience at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. However, Thomas places nearly equal emphasis on the music of rag-pickers and street merchants Armstrong absorbed prior to his time at the Waif’s Home. According to a manuscript passage cut from his memoir unearthed by Brothers, the musician wrote of a rag-picker named Larenzo: “the things he said, pertaining to music, had me spellbound.” (p. 55)

Although much has been made of Armstrong’s childhood circumstances, Brothers seems more inclined to defend his mother, Mary Ann (Mayann) Albert, particularly for exposing him to the influence of the Sanctified Church and instilling a work ethic in him. Brothers quotes her advice to a young Armstrong: “never worry about what the other feller has got. Try and get something your self.” (p. 76)

While Brothers does not really try to diminish Armstrong’s accomplishments, he does look for obscure influences and unrecognized role models. He does make a compelling case for the influence of cornetist Buddy Petit. Brothers argues:

“Both specialized in nicely sculpted improvisations marked by harmonic precision. Both were fast fingerers and skillful in bringing blues touches to any kind of melody. Petit, like Armstrong, had a fertile imagination. ‘He’d stay in the staff and . . . make you dizzy with the variation he’d make,’ said trumpeter Abert Waters.” (p. 267)

Brothers is clearly a passionate authority on not just the music of Louis Armstrong, but the entire cultural milieu of early twentieth century New Orleans. His prose though, can be a bit slow to plow through. While maybe not an essential volume on Armstrong, Brothers’ book provides valuable insight on his lesser known contemporaries, including figures like Petit.