Editor’s Note: “Spider Sounds” invites members of the University of Richmond community to share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library’s collection. The links included will take you to the library catalog record for the item in question, or to additional relevant information.
Today’s installment of “Spider Sounds” comes courtesy of UR Music Department faculty member Dr. Gene Anderson. Dr. Anderson is the author of a number of articles about early jazz and the analysis of wind music. He has been kind enough to share a review of a recent biography about Louis Armstrong’s early career entitled Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. Thanks, Gene!
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism
by Thomas David Brothers
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. By Thomas Brothers. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.
It is difficult to imagine what more there is to know about Louis Armstrong. WorldCat lists over 9,000 works about the musician in over 17,000 publications scattered among libraries throughout the world. Besides two published autobiographies and dozens of unpublished autobiographical writings, Armstrong’s life has been recounted in a host of personal interviews, recollections by contemporaries and published biographies. Of the latter, Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism is the most recent, winning the 2014 Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music and becoming a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. Master of Modernism is the third Armstrong-related book by Brothers, a Professor of Musicology at Duke University, preceded by an edited selection of Armstrong’s unpublished writings, Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words (1999), and Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006), of which this volume serves as a sequel.
The main thesis of Master of Modernism, which focuses on the period between Armstrong’s departure from New Orleans to join King Oliver’s Creole Band in 1922 to his successful transition into the swing era in the early 1930s, is that the trumpeter’s success “depended on his ability to skillfully negotiate the musical and social legacies of slavery,” and whose career, “can be understood as a response to these interlocking trajectories.” The fulfillment of such a thesis demands nothing short of a cultural history of the period, which Brothers eloquently and compellingly provides. Although the author contributes few new revelations to Armstrong’s well-known life story, he furnishes the most coherent narrative of these years to date by adding details and filling in chronological gaps by means of little-known archival photographs, first-person recollections from contemporaries and primary sources like black newspapers and periodicals.
Armstrong, armed with an exceptional ear, extraordinary memory and a nascent ability to read music, left his hometown with a thorough grounding in black vernacular music—its blues-infused aspects of collective improvisation, freak and obbligato playing (“playing second”) having been fostered variously by plantation music, the heterophonic singing of the Sanctified Church, King Oliver’s “monkeyshines” or “ragging the tune” to Manuel Perez’ leads, and the hawking of wares by street vendors, Lorenzo and Santiago. Most importantly, he was immersed in what Brothers calls the “fixed and variable model” of performance which “became the key ingredient in Armstrong’s mature style.”
Brothers concludes his investigation by summarizing the characteristics that made Armstrong a great melodist. The author’s stances on a few controversial issues have been addressed by others, but this exquisitely written and exhaustively researched work stands as an invaluable addition to the literature and will very likely come to be regarded, with its companion, Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, as the definitive study of Armstrong’s early career.