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Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism Hardcover – February 3, 2014
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*Starred Review* Jazz fans have been blessed in 2013 with two exceptional biographies, Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning (the first volume in his life of Charlie Parker) and Terry Teachout’s Duke. That pair is now joined by Brothers’ monumental follow-up to Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006). The focus here is on Armstrong’s most fertile period as an instrumental and vocal innovator—in Brothers’ convincing argument, a modernist—from his youthful arrival in Chicago in 1922 to join Joe “King” Oliver through the years of the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (culminating, sadly, with the degrading movies of the early 1930s). The strong emphasis, properly, is on the music, with Armstrong’s personal life (his marriage, his eccentricities, his marijuana use) handled only superficially. This is an enormously rich, if sometimes difficult, biography, and it delivers a remarkably clear and knowing discussion of a new musical form rooted in African music and the blues. Although his book is not for those unfamiliar with jazz, Brothers does note, after a particularly dense explication, that “the listener does not need this all spelled out . . . for the ear will recognize it effortlessly and unconsciously.” True, but this biography provides an illuminating accompaniment. There has been much written on Armstrong, but Brothers’ work, covering an astonishingly creative decade, is comprehensive and firmly grounded in musicology and in the racial and cultural climate of the 1920s. It is voluminously researched, compellingly written, and supported by a valuable discography and bibliography. A bravura accomplishment, soon to be followed, one hopes, by a third volume covering Armstrong’s role in midcentury popular music. --Mark Levine
“Thomas Brothers has brought together startling new discoveries and insights, a fresh look at hallowed recordings, and an understanding of the multifold influences that helped shape Louis Armstrong. In so doing, he has written by far the most complete and original look at an American icon whose influence continues into its second century.”
- Loren Schoenberg, artistic director, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem
“Honest, uncompromising, and wholly sympathetic to its subject, Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism is the ideal for jazz biography and criticism.”
- Scott DeVeaux, author of The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History
“Brothers proves his thesis and then some…an encyclopedic authority.”
- C.W. Mahoney, American Spectator
Top customer reviews
Thomas Brothers “Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism” is one of the best books written about Armstrong, covering the decade starting in 1921 which is generally considered the most creative of his career. For another fascinating look at Armstrong’s All Star period in the late 40s and 50s, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” by Terry Teachout is a must.
Prof Brothers masterly describe the sociological (i.e racial, not to put too fine a point on it), musical and music industry background of the period. Joe Oliver, Lil Harding, Fletcher Henderson and other are fleshed out. I found his explanation of the copyrighting of written out tunes very revealing. His analyses of early masterpieces like “Weather Bird” or “Tight Like This” very clear to anyone without knowledge of advance musical theory, although knowing basic solfeggio will enhance your pleasure. As a side note, the famous cadenza from “West End Blues” is convincingly explained as inspired by arpeggios exercises Armstrong was practicing (see samples of classical cadenzas in Arban’s method)
Finally, Prof Brothers include throughout the book references to recordings, giving the time in seconds where the examples he mentions are played.
Once having absorbed the author's carefully-built argument it is easy to understand the breadth and depth of Louis' influence on Western popular music, let alone his influence on jazz.
This volume will stand the test of time for decades to come, taking its rightful place among the canon of books about Louis.
Hats off to Dr. Brothers. Five stars!