What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years

  • Ricky Riccardi
  • Pantheon Books
  • 400 pp.
  • July 1, 2011

A spirited defense of the jazz master’s legacy through an era of changing tastes.

Reviewed by Clyde Linsley

Among my jazz-aficionado friends — there seem to be fewer of us every day —  there are certain articles of faith concerning Louis Armstrong. There is little doubt about his contributions to jazz, at least during his early career. About his later years, however, there is considerable dissension. It’s widely thought that as he aged, Armstrong’s musicianship diminished, and he confined himself to rehashing his earlier work and basking in a kind of pop-star paradise. His creative years, this theory holds, had passed him by. With his thousand-watt smile, a voice like silken sandpaper and his seemingly casual way with a lyric, it was easy for critics to dismiss him as a genius gone to seed.  The word “buffoon” was heard more than once.

To which thesis Ricky Riccardi would beg to differ. He makes a strong case.

It isn’t hard to discern Armstrong’s influence on the early development of jazz. Just play the recordings of one of his contemporaries, ensconced in their two-beat straitjackets. Then play one of Armstrong’s — even as far back as one of his performances with Joe “King” Oliver, the man who first introduced Armstrong to the wider world.

Armstrong’s pacing, his rhythmic freedom, was a revelation to musicians and to their fans. It wasn’t long before everyone — or nearly everyone — was listening to Louis and copying his phrasing and melodic invention.

But by the ’30s and ’40s, jazz had moved on. The Swing Era called for big bands — not the small, tight little groups like Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. The big bands used arrangements, often written arrangements, rather than the “head” arrangements common among early jazz men.  And after the big bands passed, the smaller groups that succeeded them played music so complex that many musicians (not to mention listeners)  were unable to follow, much less play.

Armstrong had the misfortune to live through a sea change in the nature of jazz,  and to many critics no doubt he seemed hopelessly dated. Riccardi, an unabashed Armstrong apologist, argues that Armstrong was “not only a musical genius, but he was also a once-in-a-lifetime character, a civil rights pioneer, an unimpeachable icon of entertainment, and one of the most unique human beings to ever grace the planet.” Riccardi observes that “The story of Louis Armstrong’s later years is the continuing saga of an American genius who beat all the odds, rising up from the lowest level of poverty to become America’s ‘Ambassador of Goodwill.’ ”

Having laid down this gauntlet, Riccardi proceeds to recount in extensive detail the trials and vicissitudes  — and the triumphs — of the musician’s later career, beginning with the arrival of bebop in the late 1940s until his death in 1971. Some of this is fascinating, some of it is disturbing, and some is … well, a bit overdone.

In this sizable book Riccardi reports every recording session, virtually every concert, every change in personnel in Armstrong’s band, and  the critical reactions to each in considerable detail. Some of this is interesting, as in Armstrong’s views on civil rights (he refused to play for many years in his hometown of New Orleans because of local attitudes toward black musicians playing in the same band with white musicians, for example). Some of it is disturbing. Much of it is simply overkill.

I might feel less annoyed by Riccardi’s excessive cheerleading if I didn’t feel like a member of the choir. Armstrong’s reputation, it seems to me, is secure, and the author’s continued reference to critical hostility begins to sound unnecessarily defensive. If Armstrong seemed, in his later years, to be more a pop idol than a jazz leader, it may simply be that jazz’s musical idiom had been so thoroughly integrated into popular music styles that it had become popular music.

Much of the criticism aimed at Armstrong in his later years seems to be that he was popular,  and that he catered to his audience. Riccardi notes that Armstrong’s recording of “Hello, Dolly” was intended to be the B side of the single;  the A side was expected to be another song, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”  from Bye Bye Birdie. But when “Dolly” hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100, Armstrong — no fool he — added it to his repertoire. Would the Beatles have been critically rebuked, do you suppose, for interpolating “The Age of Aquarius” into their shows?

This quibble aside, you’ll find much to like in What a Wonderful World about the later years of a genuine jazz icon. For a little critical perspective, you might want to play some Hot Five CDs in the background as you read it, and maybe “Hello, Dolly” as well.

Clyde Linsley, who admits to enjoying jazz, is a former newspaper pop- music critic and the author of four mystery novels that have nothing to do with music. He lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.

comments powered by Disqus