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Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy.

Unlike other major figures in jazz history, Louis Armstrong has seldom been attached to a stable set of meanings. His most enduring image - the wide grin and the white handkerchief - has been read as the craven surrender to racist stereotypes, but it has also been understood as the ironic undermining of these same stereotypes, as the wily diversion of attention away from a display of phallic masculinity, and as the genuine expression of natural enthusiasm and warmth. Take your pick. These arguments, however, are not to be found in Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, originally conceived as the catalog for a touring exhibition built around Armstrong's life. Marc H. Miller, who edited the book and oversaw the exhibition in its original home at the Queens Museum in New York, has chosen to underplay the controversies around Armstrong. Consequently, he and the three other authors who have written essays for the book saw no need to quote the eloquent defenses of Armstrong that appear in the works of cultural critics such as Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray. In Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, Miller, Richard A. Long, Dan Morgenstern, and Donald Bogle contribute chronological sketches of Armstrong's career from different perspectives, but their accounts frequently overlap. Details of the musician's New Orleans childhood, his glory days in Chicago and New York, and his international travels as "Ambassador Satch" are repeated, sometimes in as many as three of the essays.

Although the authors tell their tales with conviction, there are still many stories about Armstrong that need to be reported, even if they are not part of the standard celebratory narrative. For example, Armstrong's relationships with women, including his four childless marriages, deserve more than passing reference. In particular, a history of his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin, has all the obligatory elements for a Hollywood film or at least a good made-for-television movie. But as Linda Dahl has observed, most of the information on the musician is still buried in archives and oral histories. Growing up in a black bourgeois home and classically trained as a pianist, Lil Hardin heard very little jazz or blues until she left Fisk University to demonstrate sheet music in a Chicago music store. There she met a number of jazz musicians, including Sugar Johnny Smith, a doomed homosexual (he would soon die of tuberculosis) who amazed the young woman with his ability to play without written music. Picking up the arts of syncopation and improvisation from the jazz musicians who congregated in the music store, Hardin eventually landed a job as the pianist in King Oliver's group. An attractive and lively woman, she was regularly approached by musicians as well as customers at Dreamland where Oliver's band was in residence. She could always tell the interested parties that she was married (it was the truth), but having a husband did not stop her from becoming involved with the young Louis Armstrong when he arrived in Chicago to play second trumpet with Oliver. Genuinely taken with the young man from New Orleans, Hardin also regarded Armstrong as a rising star who needed to break loose from Oliver. The older trumpeter was one of several men who would function as surrogate fathers for Armstrong, whose natural father had abandoned Louis's family, probably before Louis's birth. Hardin arranged for her divorce as well as Armstrong's, married him, and saw to it that he left Oliver and moved on to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson. Although Armstrong and Hardin maintained cordial relations after their marriage broke up in the late 1920s, Gary Giddins has suggested that Armstrong never forgave her for ending his relationship with Oliver.

In 1942 Armstrong married Lucille Wilson, to whom he would remain married until his death. Nevertheless, in the 1950s the trumpeter took up with a woman who may or may not have given birth to his child. Armstrong certainly thought so. In a 1955 letter to his manager Joe Glaser, Armstrong gives the name and address of the woman and instructs Glaser to send her forty dollars each month. Next to the address Armstrong has written, "Mother of Satchmo's baby." Also in the letter Armstrong colorfully describes how he conceived the child during the time he was appearing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. As far as I know, there is nothing in the voluminous Armstrong bibliography about this woman or her child.

One expects of course more panegyric than problematization in a book like Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of stories that ought be told today, especially now that so many worthy books on Armstrong are already available. Along with Gunther Schuller's and Hugues Panassie's appraisals of Armstrong's recordings, there are Gary Giddins's beautifully illustrated critical study, Chris Albertson's fine essay in the Armstrong volume of Time/Life's Giants of Jazz series, and James Lincoln Collier's controversial but thoroughly researched biography. Armstrong himself published three autobiographies, all of them compellingly analyzed by William Kenney.

But for all the familiar material and repetition in its texts, Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy is an extremely valuable and well-produced volume. Miller, an art historian by training, has assembled a stunning exhibit and made sure that its splendors are faithfully reproduced in the book. Along with Marilyn Monroe, Armstrong was one of the most photographed figures of the twentieth century, and Miller has packed his volume with intriguing pictures. He has even written a separate essay on the trumpeter's history as a photographic and artistic subject: Armstrong appealed to the imagination of a wide variety of painters, sculptors, and photographers and made himself available to virtually anyone with a camera. Miller has also scoured the archives to turn up relevant photos without Armstrong, including visual records of the milieux in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York that he inhabited. The chapter on Armstrong's films - he appeared in twenty-three American feature films as well as in numerous documentaries and foreign films - has a generous sample of publicity shots chronicling the evolution of the Armstrong persona as it was appropriated by Hollywood. There are even sketches from the cartoons that made use of Armstrong's image; in MGM's Swing Wedding (1937), for example, the trumpeter is one of several black entertainers portrayed as musical frogs.

Among painters and graphic artists, Romare Bearden, Palmer Hayden, Francis Feist, Al Hirschfeld, Paul Colin, Charles Delaunay, LeRoy Neiman, Rene Bouche, Miguel Covarrubias, and Winold Reiss tried their hand at representing Armstrong's body and/or spirit. Many of their works are generously reproduced in full-color prints. In addition, the book is filled with the work of artists who did not include Armstrong in their paintings and etchings but who were inspired by jazz. Works by Ralph Van Lehmden, Stephen Longstreet, Jacob Lawrence, Stokely Webster, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Misha Reznikoff, Blanding Sloan, Jules Pascin, Franz Kline, Archibald Motley, Jr., Reginald Marsh, and Charles Demuth all document the challenge that African American music has offered to visual artists. Armstrong himself can actually be included among this group of artists. The trumpeter turns out to have been a devoted collage artist who regularly combined photographs and newspaper clippings with ample amounts of Scotch Tape. Although he never claimed to be serious about these assemblages, his compositions are often clever illustrations of specific themes. Miller includes, for example, Armstrong's arrangement of photographs of Nat King Cole, Count Basle, Billy Eckstine, and the Ink Spots around the words "Negroes Who Work on Broadway."

This is a beautiful and valuable book that pays tribute to Louis Armstrong on multiple levels. It is most impressive as a visual document of his life and influence. If the texts are not the literary equivalent of the artworks, the problem has much more to do with a tradition in jazz writing that still tilts toward hagiography more than toward analysis.

Reviewed by Krin Gabbard SUNY at Stony Brook
COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gabbard, Krin
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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