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What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years Hardcover – June 21, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The legendary jazz trumpeter's final decades were not a collapse into lame minstrelsy, as critics complain, but a musical efflorescence, according to this exuberant biography. Journalist Riccardi surveys Armstrong's postwar career, during which he churned out recorded covers of forgettable pop tunes, got labeled an Uncle Tom for his grinning, clowning, eye-rolling antics before white audiences, and infuriated jazz purists by making signature tunes out of bland ballads like "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World." Riccardi's Satchmo is certainly an eccentric coot, what with his epic marijuana and laxative habits. (He recommended the latter as a cure-all to President Eisenhower and Grace Kelly.) But he's also a consummate entertainer who knew what audiences wanted, took seriously his role as cultural ambassador, and vocally challenged racist conventions. Indeed, Riccardi argues, Armstrong's alleged musical decline actually produced his greatest jazz albums—the author's exegeses of these, based on session tapes, make for a luminous exploration of Armstrong's musicianship—and, yes, some sublime pop standards as well. Riccardi's narrative sometimes bogs down in the minutiae of touring, recording, and overlong reminiscences. But his lively prose and warm engagement with the music make this a satisfying appreciation of Armstrong's legacy. Photos. (June)


“The story of Louis Armstrong’s later years is the great untold tale of postwar jazz. Now Ricky Riccardi has told it to perfection. What a Wonderful World is a unique and indispensable landmark in Armstrong scholarship, a weathervane that will point the way to all future writings on his life and work.”
—Terry Teachout, author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
“This is not only a tale of interest to jazz fans or academics but the climactic portion of the inspiring life story of a man who, against all odds, rose from extreme poverty and discrimination to become, indisputably, one of the stellar figures of the twentieth century . . . We need this book.”
—Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (June 21, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378446
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378446
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,049,831 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a 30-year-old Louis Armstrong freak with a Master's in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers. I have delivered lectures on Armstrong everywhere from Harlem to New Orleans to Italy. I run an all-Armstrong blog at and currently, I am the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens.

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Al Basile on July 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While my personal opinion is that there could never be enough books on Louis Armstrong, by anyone's standards this is a supremely important addition to the body of attention focused on Pops. If good art makes us see something new, and great art makes us see in a new way, this book is both good and great in bringing even the experienced reader and listener to a new relationship with the depth of Armstrong's art and humanity.

If it is fair to judge a person by the standards of the times in which he lived, Pops was well ahead of the social curve of racial justice in America - much of the view of him as a Tom was made through a generational lens by younger musicians for whom he was a father figure who must be superseded. What he did behind the scenes in his own way is revealed in this book, and it should put to rest the notion that Pops was merely a genial entertainer, bowing and scraping before the White Establishment (what he really called Orval Faubus in 1957 - instead of "an uneducated plowboy" as the press rewrote his remarks - is instructive).

Whatever your take on the music some call jazz, at some point in the middle of the last century it came to be acknowledged as an art form. That this made some of its greatest musicians begin to think of themselves differently was a natural development, and over time the message of the music came to mirror more and more the message of mid-twentieth century art in general - it showed the changes in the human spirit inflicted by one of humanity's most brutal centuries. A crisis in faith, an increase in alienation, a dessication of sincerity in the face of monstrous cynicism - all these elements may be found in the music of the generations who followed Pops.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Ravenous Fellow on June 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Many people might think, "What, another biography of Satchmo?" Or some might back away from the whole notion of a biography of a jazz musician, "Only for those jazz nuts, those guys who collect those old records with all the scratches on them." WRONG. Riccardi's book is not a splendid jazz biography: it is a splendid biography, comfortably written and deeply researched without a hint of academic stuffiness. It is, first, the story of a man in love with his art, and determined to perform and create at the highest level he could -- no matter what the critics, the journalists, or some disgruntled musicians might say. All of this after he had already established a worldwide reputation as the best in his field -- at a time in life when other artists complacently turn out copies of their finer earlier work. Dismissed as an unsophisticated primitive player, a racial buffoon, a good-natured clown, Armstrong worked harder and pleased more people in the last 25 years of his life than he had before. This is a great book because it balances the public man and the private one -- and in the latter case, Riccardi has wisely used material no one else had known about (private letters and tape recordings, interviews with Armstrong's contemporaries) to great effect. The whole man is on view in these pages, and even if you know very little of Armstrong -- perhaps especially if you know little -- this book is an invaluable exploration of what it means to be an artist working in public, an African-American man in the last half of the twentieth century. And the book is (dare one say this) a lot of fun -- Louis had "a lot of livin' to do" and he did it with great love and enthusiasm. Love and enthusiasm uplift this book, which is both an exciting page-turner and a deep exploration.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By BrianB VINE VOICE on June 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a well written, detailed account of the last 25 years of Louis Armstrong, with an emphasis on his music and his public life. Riccardi has brought an extensive scholarship to bear upon his subject, using his musical knowledge (he is a jazz pianist with a masters in Jazz History) and his well structured prose. Written for the general public, it nevertheless provides a needed historical perspective on the least studied years of Armstrong's life.

Riccardi makes a case for the excellence of Satchmo's music during a time when some critics dismissed him as a repetitive entertainer. He also answers the critics who thought Armstrong was an uncle Tom, because his response to racism was different than theirs, and his clowning around on stage annoyed younger black musicians. These arguments have been made in other books, but Riccardi has made a new and authoritative account.

Although I always knew that he was a great musician, I did not appreciate Armstrong's greatness until now. During a time when jazz was sinking in popularity, Satchmo was becoming the most popular musician in the world. He was a musical machine, constantly on the road, entertaining night after night, keeping up the pace until his health failed. This book shares those same qualities: it is lengthy, full of detailed information and extensive notes.

"What a Wonderful Life" is essential reading for those who have an interest in the history of jazz. Although I wished for more details about his private life, that is not the focus of this work. That does not detract from the excellence of Riccardi's accomplishment. It is a book I will keep on my bookshelf for as long as I have a bookshelf.
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