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Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism.

Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. By Thomas Brothers. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. [xi, 594 p. ISBN 9780393065824 (hardcover), $39.95; ISBN 9780393350807 (paperback), $19.95.] Music examples, illustrations, discography, bibliography, index.

A continuation of Brothers's Louis Armstrong's New Orleans (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), this book focuses on ten years of Louis Armstrong's life and music from 1922. Brothers divides the decade into Armstrong's two "modern" styles: the first, "created around the years 1926-28" which was typified by his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, and the second, "the result of efforts to succeed in the mainstream market of white audiences" (p. 9). Although Brothers does not define the term "modern," underlying Armstrong's modern styles is the notion that he created "a modern black identity" (p. 196) by internalizing and then transforming "the African-American musical vernacular" (p. 3), which is described as "the orally based traditions that were formed on the slave plantations of the Deep South and continued to provide the everyday basis for cultural expression among lower-class blacks" (p. 4).

Brothers's basic contentions are themselves indisputable: for example, that Armstrong's music is inherently African American in nature and that he was deeply indebted to his musical background in New Orleans; however, his assertion that nearly all aspects of Armstrong's music are direct manifestations of African legacies is problematic. For example, he argues that the fixed and variable model, as the underlying principle of Armstrong's first modern style, is "a musical model that is still ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, from which enslaved people brought it to the New World" (p. 6). Focusing on the rhythmic aspect of West African percussion music, Brothers explains that on the fixed level "one instrument (or group of instruments) plays a repeated rhythmic figure," while "the 'variable' instrument or group brings the music to life by departing from the repeated figure in interesting ways" (ibid.). Arguing that Armstrong applied this model to "melody and harmony as well as rhythm" (ibid.), Brothers broadens it to include any variable musical element superimposed on any underlying musical structure at all levels, encompassing displacements of rhythm, harmony, melody, phrasing, timbre, and form, with specific examples of syncopation, substitute harmony, harmonic anticipation, extended harmony, and nonharmonic tones.

This overarching model might be a result of an attempt to overcompensate for the loss of a direct African legacy, because while acknowledging that "details of West African drum ensembles did not survive in the American South," Brothers claims that "the fixed and variable model not only survived, it flourished" (p. 94), as "the general principles were retained and applied to different instruments, techniques, repertories, and styles" (p. 93). In fact, he ironically argues that "by making the fixed and variable model so central to his music, Armstrong intensified the audible presence of his African heritage" (pp. 6-7; italics in the original) and that "this African legacy was strengthened" (p. 196). This is a problematic model not only because it is too broad to be meaningful, but also because Brothers does not provide any supporting evidence, and because his understanding of African music simplistically equates it with West African percussion music while ignoring the extraordinary musical diversity in the West African region alone. Ironically, Brothers claims that a prejudice in jazz history that emphasizes rhythm rather than melody has failed to recognize Armstrong as a great melodist (p. 457), while he himself employs a similar approach to African music. Another self-contradictory example is his emphasis on improvisation as an integrally African musical practice, while repeatedly stressing that Armstrong's solos and New Orleans jazz in general were not improvised, but rather worked out over time. In addition, in order to support his view that the 1923 recordings of Joe Oliver's band are of "African origin," Brothers even relies on and twice quotes a derogatory record review from the New York Clipper which calls them, "barbaric indigo dance tunes" (pp. 95 and 447). For Armstrong's second modern style, Brothers uses a separate practice of the black musical vernacular, "ragging," as the foundational principle, described as "radical paraphrase of familiar popular turns" (p. 9). Considering the extremely broad nature of the fixed and variable model, however, "ragging" can be easily regarded as part of it, with the varied melody superimposed over the fixed level of written melody.

The connections between African and African American music is a fascinating subject, but it requires a deeper investigation into various types of West African music, including vocal and harmonically-based music. The author also needed to provide more concrete examples to support his arguments, especially considering the enormous amount of time and effort he spends on his assertions about the African legacy and the frequency with which he reiterates it. The same applies to his arguments on the evolution of heterophony and collective improvisation.

Another overgeneralized category is the "Eurocentric," the antithesis of the African American vernacular. Although Brothers never defines "Eurocentric" music, its features include notation, harmony, and "a two-beat feeling," distinguished from the non-notatable nature and "the flat 4/4" of the New Orleans vernacular music (p. 88). While the white appropriation of black music is a significant issue, Brothers expresses an unusual degree of contempt toward white musicians, frequently calling them "white little boys" and "ofay demons," while several of them were actually older than Armstrong. In discussing Bix Beiderbecke, whose music Armstrong appreciated, Brothers states that "he may be considered Armstrong's first great disciple" (p. 268), but then subjects him to slander: "Severe alcoholism and shadowy sexual deviance, including pederasty and masochism, indicate a deeply troubled mind that (Beiderbecke] tried to deal with through alcohol and an overwhelming dedication to music" (p. 282). This demeaning portrayal is not unlike James Lincoln Collier's mean-spirited characterization of Armstrong: " [Armstrong] grew up deprived both physically and emotionally to an exceptional degree, and the experience left him scarred with a deep-seated, lifelong sense of insecurity" (Collier, "Louis Armstrong," in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [London: Macmillan, 1988], 1:27).

Brothers is also dismissive of black musicians whom he considers inauthentic because of their "Eurocentric" musical training, for example, the "talented tenth": he explains that the term is "W. E. B. Du Bois's phrase for the top layer of African-American society" (p. 125), as part of the Harlem Renaissance, although he uses it in a negative sense. Calling them the "Harlem elite" (p. 123), he characterizes them as "fixated on white standards" (p. 196), with prime examples being Fletcher Henderson and James Reese Europe. The "talented tenth" in this book replace the "snooty" Creoles, who were Brothers's object of disdain in his 2006 book.

Another problem in this book is Brothers's tendency to place the black and white musical styles into competitive and adversarial positions by stressing how black musical achievement matched the white. For example, Armstrong's solo style was "sophisticated enough ... to compete with white standards" (p. 453) and Scott Joplin was interested "in matching the Eurocentric classics at their own game" (p. 274). It is as if musical styles are direct representations of a racial and cultural dichotomy in ideological power struggles, as Brothers views Armstrong's incorporation of "Eurocentric" musical elements as a conquest: Armstrong "subordinated [harmony] to the fixed and variable model" (p. 273), and "challenged white cultural supremacy" (p. 203). Brothers also emphasizes that there was no assimilation or compromise, as "Armstrong stifled the need to buy into white standards by selectively folding them into his vernacular-shaped vision," and his "modern Negro beauty" had "no trace of wanting to be white" (p. 199).

For references, Brothers uses a dual system consisting of endnotes and source notes. Although he explains that endnotes contain "explanatory material" and source notes "brief citations, keyed to the main body of the book by page number and key phrase" (pp. ix-x), this system is confusing. For example, a single source note often contains a group of references to, and explanations for, a whole paragraph, and because key phrases are not always indicated, it is often unclear which citation refers to which part of the paragraph. In addition, the lack of superscripts for the source notes often masks absent citations. More generally, there are discrepancies between the text and the notes: for example, information in the notes that is irrelevant to the text: key phrases in the notes that do not exist in the main text; or abbreviated citations in the notes that are not in the bibliography. Furthermore, Brothers often gives only secondary sources for facts or quotes, instead of also providing primary sources. For example, a citation for a Cab Calloway performance simply says "Erin McKinney, paper for liberal studies class, Duke University" (p. 568). In addition, the discography only contains a list of selected recordings with basic information on the albums on which they were reissued, but considering his frequent references to the recordings, the discography needs to include recording dates, personnel, and original record labels to facilitate readers' understanding. The book also needs a list of movies and performance videos under discussion.

In summary, this book is a strange mixture of a well-researched chronicle of Armstrong's career and unfounded assertions about African legacies in his music. Another strange aspect of the book is Brothers's use of the term "Negro" as a common noun or adjective, which may be an attempt to render authenticity to his arguments about black culture. Although this book is intended for a general audience, there are extensive analytical details. It includes only three music examples, however, all derived from published sources. This book may not be a good introduction to Armstrong's life and music because of Brothers's problematic tendency toward essentialism and overgeneralization based on a rigid dichotomy.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute
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Author:Shim, Eunmi
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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