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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2000
This biography of Louis Armstrong presents the rich mosaic that was the life of one of the greatest musicians and entertainers of the 20th Century. It uses his life story to describe the history of early jazz--from his childhood on the streets of New Orleans, his move to Chicago where he made his famous recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, and on to New York and Europe. I was surprized to learn that in many ways his charismatic stage persona was his real personality. But at the same time he was quite a complex character (four marriages, daily marijuana use, managers with mob connections, laxative proselytizations). Aside from his musical genius, he was a cultural icon--the first African American entertainer to cross over to broad popularity throughout America. The story is often told in Louis's own words, making it easier to get to know him. I loved the story about his first trip back to New Orleans after he spent nearly a decade going from being a local talent to an international star. When I got to the last chapter I put the book aside for a little while--I didn't want the book or Louis's life to end.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 1998
Louis Armstrong, An Extravant Life is superb because it recreates the man and his times--and how the man changed his time. Laurence Bergreen details the poverty of Storyville, New Orleans: its honky tonks and violence, and the surprising sustenance a resilent child found there. We see how Louis Armstrong found his family among the white, Jewish Karnovskys, and in the stern Waif's Home where he became a musician.
Bergreen shows us the shameful racism of the South (and North), and how Louis' exuberant personality and music helped transcend it. The Armstrong we come to know is humble, humorous, brimming with the energy of jazz itself. We learn how Armstrong invented solos and scat singing, and how his jazz went beyond even music. That is, he mesmerized America with a personality that brought rich and poor, black and white, hip and square together.
Armstrong's blowing and singing, his restless amiable spirit, is a bracing ode to being alive. Bergreen's meticulous empathy lets us share the extravagance.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2004
I believe I've read them all and nothing ever written about Louis Armstrong is as detailed as this book. Moreso than the "tired old stories" you see repeated in version after version of other tales of Armstrong, this one actually delves into the personal life as well as the persona of the man. Every Armstong fan needs to read this book - it's an awakening!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2000
If you are looking for a discography of Louis Armstrong, don't look to this book. However, if what you want is the life and times of the man - then this is the book for you. Personally, this is what I want in a jazz biography - I'll listen to the CD's or radio for a discography. Mr Bergreen describes in telling detail the early stages of Louis's life in New Orleans - and believe me, it was no paradise! He (Bergreen)is also adept at giving the reader the overall feel of New Orleans at the turn of the century. So at the beginning we get a view of Louis hauling coal to make money for his mother amidst abject poverty and racial discrimination. It is really beyond belief that Louis - at the very bottom of the heap - was able to struggle through this and become an American icon. We are also introduced to a cast of characters that entered or played significantly in Louis's life. None of these people were angels - so in effect they all make for interesting reading. And although Louis is "King of Jazz" he is no saint himself (his 4 wives could attest to that!). This book is a great read - not only if you are interested in the rise to fame of a great African American, but it truly captures the spirit and tough times of that era from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.
Kim C.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 2, 2002
This biography does an excellent job of painting a portrait of a man who changed 20th Century music, not only in America, but across the globe. Learning the details of Louis' life and struggles only enhances my appreciation of his music.
The impact of Louis Armstrong is still felt on several levels in our society. While Armstrong did not have a hand in inventing jazz, he was instrumental in pushing it artistically. With a minimum of formal instruction, he revolutionized the trumpet as well as singing in Jazz and popular music. He was also instrumental as one of the early African-American celebrities, in breaking down racial barriers.
Laurence Begreen does a fine job of illustrating the joys and struggles that Armstrong encountered. The devatating poverty and harsh socail environment of Louis youth are keenly detailed. He shows how these obstacles are overcome by Armstong's love of music and of life. He also shows the prejudice and mob intimidation that Louis had to endure on his road to stardom.
All in all, this book is an inspiring work and testimonial to the life and music of one of the greatest trumpet players and entertainers to grace this planet. I would seriously recommend this to anyone with an interest in music, especially jazz.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 1997
An Extravagant Life is much more than a biography of Louis Armstrong. Having been born at the turn of the century, in New Orleans, this book is a travelogue of that city from a unique perspective (the underside), a history of jazz, a snapshot of race relations and segregation in America for this entire century, AND a rich tapestry of the life of a man who started out with no advantages except his musical gift and a positive attitude.

Armstrong was a man of very strong tolerances: alcohol, marijuana, food, women, gansters, laxatives, and music, to name just a few. The essence of Louis is captured in Bergreen's book: We like him, we care for him, we pity him, and we almost understand him. We are definitely fascinated by him.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2003
This was one of the best biographies I have ever read. By far the best one of the life of Louis Armstrong. It took me only 2 days to read this book, I could hardly put it down. Not being much of a fan of Dixieland, New Orleans Jazz, etc...after reading this book I was hooked. I wanted to listen to every Louis recording available. Bergreen paints Armstrong as such an amazing character which he completely was. Even if you aren't a jazz fan this is just a great book about a great man.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2002
Fascinating portrait of the first big entertainer to cross the color line in his appeal. Growing up the hard way with a prostitute mother and a stint in a juvi facility, Louie had a colorful youth. His four marriages (one to a former prostitute), extramarital dalliances and penchant for marijuana bely his public image. His life simply makes a great story.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
You get not only a bio of a great musician & person, you get a detailed description how Blacks lived New Orleans through the turn of the century. From it you get a better understanding of how the pre-recording (and therefore unrecorded) sounds of untutored musicians became the roots of the New Orleans musical genre and how the odds were stacked against Louis. You come to understand his workaholism and his deference to his eventual agent, who probably exploited him.

As the book progresses, the historical descriptions are not as detailed but you feel the music and the person developing. Ironically, the two best known pieces "Hello Dolly" & "It's a Wonderful World", were late stage, not representative, but somehow routine work for the prolific Louis.

It's hard to imagine from the impoverished roots, the raw deals and the omnipresent daily racism (even to his death in 1971 segregation both de facto and Jim Crow continued), how Louis kept his optimism and exhuberance. It was not self deceptive, when the chips were down, he supported the Brown v Board of Ed decision, not just in his heart, but words and actions.

He was an unfaithful lover and husband. We don't know if he ever promised otherwise... all his wives but the first (who was common law married) knew he was a married man when they started "dating" him. The world owes Mrs. Armstong the 2nd (Lil) a debt. She gave him confidence and a platform to be the star he became.

In the Acknowledgments the author says this is the first bio he's written where his admiration for his subject grows.

Louis Armstrong blazed a trail. He was a tough cat, much tougher than all the supposedly macho dudes who posture now. He doesn't have to posture because he's dealt with the mob and prostitutes who slash with the knifes in their shoes, and somehow reminds us, that despite all this, it's a wonderful world.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 1999
If someone were to ask me to pick one book to read about a jazz musician, this would be it.... and I've read them all!!
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