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The Life of the father of Jazz
on December 27, 2009
This book is about "Satchmo" the man, his trials in life and his music as told through his writings, his music, relationship with his wives, and informal interviews of him as well as through a rich selection of vignettes of his life and his music. This author's depiction of Satchmo (he was also called "pops" by those very close to him) the man is that of a fun-loving, gregarious, funny, lighthearted man with few worries and even fewer deep thoughts. Yet, his writings (including several drafts of his autobiography) and interviews belie the carefully groomed image of him as a "grinning and skinning" obsequious entertainer.
The troubles and emotional wear-and tear on Satchmo's psyche as a result of being treated as a second-class citizen in a segregated society where he was forced to become little more than a caricature of a "blackface clown," a most "unnatural showman" -- before mostly white audiences for over fifty years -- is rationalized here and discounted, if not entirely taken for granted. And at the very least not considered a significant factor in the shaping of the man or his music. However, anyone who has listened to the "bending blue notes" in Satchmo's carefully constructed, richly endowed and always harrowingly soulful solos, can attest to the pathos of a man having grown up in America's pathological racist social order. Among other indignities, he had to endure the demeaning characterizations by his black musical peers, as being a "throwback from an earlier time," an "Uncle Tom" who was out of step with the musical demands of progressive Jazz and with the demands of a more modern and self-respecting persona. Yet, to a man they all respected him in the end and Satchmo took it all in stride and somehow managed to live a life surprisingly long, happy life free of bitterness.
Armstrong's background - having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks of New Orleans -- is by now well known: He was the illegitimate son of a 15-year old part time maid/prostitute. His father was a turpentine-factory worker. Until the age of 11, he was left on his own during the day, to roam the streets where he had no problem getting himself into trouble, which eventually landed him in a home for wayward boys. There he found order and structure that did not exist at home. He earned enough to buy an old Coronet, and learned to play it on his own without any formal musical training and without being able to read music. Once he was accomplished enough to join the Waif home's band, his amateur career as a sideman for funereal and marching bands began. And from there he moved on to playing professionally. The book chronicles his move up the professional ladder: from New Orleans to Chicago and on to New York. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
The author, who was a jazz bassist himself, makes good use of his superior musical knowledge to clue the reader in on Armstrong's musical development - especially on how Armstrong used his horn as an extension of his own personality, and as therapy to deal with his own personal problems, and thus as a form of emotional release as well as self-expression.
Pops blazed a trail so rich emotionally and musically that everything else in Jazz since he hit the scene can be accounted for in the wake of the creative power he left. Satchmo is a true American hero, no matter the sacrifices he had to make to become one. Three stars