Book review

Ricky Riccardi – ‘Heart Full Of Rhythm: The Big Band Years Of Louis Armstrong’

Ricky Riccardi – Heart Full Of Rhythm – The Big Band Years Of Louis Armstrong
(Oxford University Press. Book review by Denny Ilett)

Since the mid-1940s, when jazz criticism became ‘a thing’, writers have consistently struggled to reconcile Louis Armstrong, the ground-breaking pioneer, with ‘Satchmo’ the entertainer; the ‘pop star’.

Whilst Louis’ work from 1925-29, the Hot Five and Hot Seven period, is unimpeachable, his post-1929 output has routinely been dismissed as ‘showboating’ and, worse, a failure by him to live up to his pioneer status, yet this period also brought jazz to the masses, mainly through the sheer force of Louis’ ability to sell it. Still, it’s overlooked.

Author Ricky Riccardi is also Director Of Research Collections at the Armstrong House Museum in Queens NYC, and has unparalleled access to countless hours of private recordings, letters, photographs, newspaper articles and autobiographical musings that Armstrong personally collected/collated over the course of his extraordinary life.

The focus of Riccardi’s first book, What A Wonderful World – The Magic Of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, was on Louis’ career from 1947 until his death in 1971; a 24-year period representing his greatest commercial successes that another Armstrong biographer, Laurence Bergreen, devoted a mere 60 pages to in his 500-page An Extravagant Life. Other authors, from Rudi Blesh in the 1940s to James Lincoln Collier in the 1980s, created and perpetuated the narrative that Armstrong had ‘betrayed’ his art for the evils of commercial success whilst adopting an Uncle Tom persona to please white audiences.

Delving into Louis’ private archive, Riccardi presented a different Armstrong to the critics’ image of ‘Pops’, the grinning, lovable entertainer who’d somehow sold his soul. It became clear that Armstrong was a fiercely proud man, politically aware, entirely in control of his talent and appreciative of his place in history.

With Heart Full Of Rhythm, Riccardi retrospectively continues the story, analysing the years 1929-1947 when Louis evolved from jazz creator to world famous artist. Riccardi argues that Armstrong was “bigger than jazz”, and that white critics at the time were out of sync with Louis’ black audience. He was consistently breaking box-office records, appearing in Hollywood movies and on network radio, recording hit songs whilst featuring in readers polls as both trumpeter and vocalist.

The depth of Riccardi’s research is impressive including numerous eye-opening press reports alongside a substantial amount of Louis’ own words; many published here for the first time. Colourful stories of encounters with mob-connected managers, marijuana, the police and racism render the book as much about the tribulations of black artists during this period as about Armstrong himself.

As for the music, the Swing Era and later, the Bebop revolution, all made possible through Armstrong’s early innovations, coincided with a growing movement of jazz historians seeking to commend the music of the 1920s as the only “real jazz”. Armstrong found himself competing with himself as the Hot Fives/Sevens were re-released rendering his current sound “commercial junk”. Then, the press stoked a war of words between Louis and modernist Dizzy Gillespie. In time, the Uncle Tom moniker gained traction and stayed with Louis for much of the rest of his life. He endured accusations that his music was passé yet hired future legends such as Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus to “stay with the times”.

The most fascinating aspects of Riccardi’s book are the opposing opinions of the black and white press. The white press found Louis’ stage persona old-fashioned, inappropriate and offensive. The black press, by contrast, reported almost universal acclaim, continuing to see him as a musical powerhouse and figurehead for “the race”. Amidst all the politics, Armstrong ploughed on, blowing his horn, making people happy. After all, what he saw, 300 nights of every year, was sold-out crowds and mass public adulation!

As a companion to What A Wonderful World this book is an indispensable guide toward truly understanding what made Armstrong tick as his celebrity outgrew his status as a jazz revolutionary. It shows where his priorities lay and his overall philosophy during a period routinely ignored by historians. It shows the white press completely misunderstanding Armstrong’s vaudeville background; something the black press celebrated him for. Armstrong tirelessly served his fans; always giving them what they wanted. He understood he’d opened the door for the next generation who then dismissed him as a “plantation character” – something which hurt him deeply. Writers such as Leonard Feather wrote scathingly of Louis, demanding he abandon his direction and get back to “real jazz”. Contrary to popular myth, he was intensely supportive of his race, calling out racism wherever he found it. As Dizzy Gillespie later said “Pops refused to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life… I misjudged him.”

Riccardi proves that Louis was, indeed, “bigger than jazz”, but this story is ultimately bigger than Louis. It brings to the fore a heady cocktail of racial politics, the burgeoning civil rights movement, untold musical innovation, in-fighting between ‘trad’ and ‘modern’ camps and wearying white privilege; the combination of which was arguably as problematic as it was problem-solving for black artists at the time. As Jon Faddis has written, this book is a “must-read for those interested in Armstrong, jazz and our shared cultural heritage”.

LINK: Heart Full of Rhythm at OUP

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