The author of a terrific Irving Berlin biography (As Thousands Cheer
), Laurence Bergreen produces a similarly astute character analysis of the renowned trumpet player, too often viewed as a musical genius but an Uncle Tom in race relations. On the contrary, Bergreen shows, Louis Armstrong (1901-71) was that rarest of human beings, someone who could respond to injustice with a determination to overcome that never included bitterness. Slightly stronger on milieu than music, Bergreen conveys such zest for the material and such obvious fondness for Armstrong that his book is a delight to read.
Louis Armstrong was a musical genius who left indelible marks on jazz and a legend so potent that it has taken a slew of biographers years to render harmless and formless. Bergreen, the author of As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin
(1990) and Capone: The Man and the Era
(1994), brings a great deal of insight to Armstrong's "extravagant" life, because he does not so much try to denounce or confirm the myths (he was born on 4 July_ 1900, he bought his first coronet with money he earned performing in the streets of New Orleans, his mother was a prostitute, and on and on) as establish that Armstrong was a musical genius who embraced his origins and brought the past into the formidable body of music he produced. Bergreen, an empathetic soul, seeks understanding. For instance, it may appear that Armstrong's managers took advantage of him (he worked close to 15 years without a break until he split his chops in London in 1934 and was forced to stop blowing, yet his then-manager sued him for breach of contract). Bergreen suggests that Armstrong may knowingly have paid for what the "ofays" gave him, which was the freedom to devote himself to his music while they took care of life's details. A deeply moving biography that fascinates from beginning to end. Bonnie Smothers