Louis Armstrong by Hugues Panassié
Photograph collection b Jack Bradley
Published in 1971
Genre: Biography, nonfiction, music criticism
“The New Year was being celebrated in New Orleans.”
If you are from my generation or younger, you may be familiar with the gritty voice singing “What a Wonderful World,” but Louis Armstrong was most famous as a jazz musician; his playing takes center stage in Louis Armstrong by French music critic Hugues Panassié. Split into three sections, the book gives an account of “Satchmo” and his career blowing people’s minds with his unique trumpet playing. Assuming they already know much of his life story, Louis Armstrong is a great addition to any fan’s bookshelf.
Part 1 – “The Man”
Louis Armstrong was born on July 4th, 1900 and was put into a boy’s home around the age of 14. As a child, Armstrong organized singing quartets and was first taught to play the cornet before moving on to the trumpet. As a teen, Armstrong began sitting in with different jazz bands in New Orleans before taking command of his own orchestras in Chicago, New York, and Europe. He became more famous worldwide because of the many studio recordings he played on up until 1968. Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, but the book’s account ends on a strong note by Panassié because it was being written in 1969.
Part 2 – “The Style”
This is the shortest of the three sections and it breaks down Armstrong’s technique and what sets him apart from other trumpet players, especially within the genre of jazz. He may not have been the fastest, or played the highest notes, but he had amazing intonation and control as well as a signature vibrato. He played what best suited the song rather than to show off or follow trends.
Part 3 – “The Music of Louis Armstrong on Records”
In the final section of the book, Panassié gives recommendations for specific Armstrong recordings and explains how they showcase his growth as a player. What follows are 89 pages of recording descriptions dating from 1923 to 1968. His first recordings were in 1923 when Armstrong played second trumpet to King Oliver, a more famous player at the time. Louis would record outside his label and mask his playing to avoid getting in trouble as a label exclusive performer in his early career. In the 1950s, the 33 rpm discs allowed for better fidelity and quality of sound, especially for Louis’ singing.
Panassié’s voice is ever-present. He calls parts that don’t serve Armstrong’s playing or the tune “insignificant” or that some musicians “spoiled” the recording. He writes like a stereotypical critic seldom giving praise to those other than Armstrong and quick to jab with barbed criticism. Reading the book and descriptions made me want to listen to the recordings Panassié is talking about; he then tells the reader to go do so at the end.
The book is more about the musician than the man; the biography in the beginning is only one section of three, but this fits since Panassié is more interested in discussing Armstrong’s playing. There are four collections of photographs that span Armstrong’s career and show him in different eras, which adds a nice break in the ramblings about recordings; however, the captions assigning who is whom in the photo are difficult to follow at times, making the reader guess at who is being described rather than easily finding them in the photo.
Louis Armstrong is a good book for Armstrong enthusiasts with musical backgrounds. As I stated earlier, this is not a strict biography; it is more about his playing and music career than the actual events in his life. The book is short and it has a total of 148 pages; 89 of which are descriptions of recordings (have I mentioned that?). This was an enjoyable read for the first two sections, but if you are looking for a biography of the man I would recommend finding another book.
Verdict: 3 attempts at translating trumpet majesty into words out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Louis Armstrong, fans of French music critics, French music critics, trumpet players, jazz aficionados, fans who are interested in reading 89 pages of recording descriptions, people with a basic understanding of music and its terms, those who want to learn more about Louis Armstrong the musician, and those who enjoy jazz music.
Not recommended for: People who dislike Louis Armstrong, enemies of French music critics, the easily offended, those incapable of taking a work’s time period in context of the words and phrases used, people without a basic understanding of music and its terms, people who don’t want to read 89 pages of recording descriptions, or those who don’t like jazz music.