Born to the horn

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen, HarperCollin s pounds 25
In 1925 Lil Armstrong, the Chicago pianist, put together an impromptu quintet, featuring her husband Louis on cornet. Without any rehearsal time, and in a single day, The Hot Fives laid down what have been called the most influential recordings in the history of popular music. The unknown horn player, fresh from New Orleans, brought with him a revolutionary mix of "sweet" blues and "hot heat" jazz. On the dozen or so tracks they made, his solos dip and soar over Lil's pounding chords, each excursion tightly formulated. In the space of a few bars he harks back to the call- and-response of work gangs and anticipates the stop-start rhythms of swing. Every note he plays, whether top or bottom register, curved or clipped, maintains an incisive vibrato. It is a breathtaking display of virtuosity that justifies his self-proclaimed title as "the first all-American jazz babe". His friends just called him "Gate" - because he swung like one.

When he wasn't dazzling audiences, Armstrong loved to type, and five years ago, the entire archive of his diaries and letters was made available. "Wailin" (sex), "gage" (dope), and laxatives - "Leave it all behind ya!" - occupied his thoughts much of the time, but he was also quick to condemn intolerance and hypocrisy. "Fuck that shit," he wrote when President Nixon invited him to a PR jaunt at the White House. And he was keen to memorialise a life that began in dire poverty and that took a steep trajectory into international fame by dint of his extraordinary genius. In this latest biography of America's greatest jazz musician, Laurence Bergreen has written an American Pilgrim's Progress with dirty jokes.

It starts in New Orleans, which under Bergreen's direction, and with excerpts from Armstrong's reminiscences, comes to life as a collision of ethnic groupings and cultures. Bergreen writes that the young Armstrong would follow funeral marches (which were inspired by an ancient Zulu burial rite) through the streets of New Orleans until they reached Congo Square, where the musician's stomping, ragtime beat was confronted by Creole whores dancing quadrilles. This fusion of musical traditions evolved into "jass".

Louis was born in 1901 an outcast; his birth certificate was stamped "niger illegitimus", his grandparents were ex-slaves, and soon after his birth Armstrong senior left Louis's mother, who took to "selling fish", or prostitution. To supplement her paltry income, five-year-old Louis helped deliver coal to the Storyville brothels, where he heard the first jazz greats - Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory and King Joe Oliver, playing in places like Funky Butt Hall and Dangerous Babies'.

With friends, he set up stall on street corners and played impromptu rags, singing and dancing for passers-by, until one New Year's Eve when, by now 11, he fired a pistol into the air and was sentenced to four year's correction at the Black Waif's Home. Never one to be discouraged, he joined their orchestra, and was soon heading their marching band and gaining the attention of local jazz dignitaries. He was 15 when King Oliver offered him a spot at Pete Lala's honky tonk, and 17 when he married a knife-wielding "whore with a heart of tin". When the Storyville brothels were closed down by city officials, the jazz diaspora began. And in 1923, desperate to flee his wife's razor blades, he joined King Oliver in Chicago where he met "Miss Hot Lil" Hardin. At this point, Bergreen's biography falters; his portrayal of Lil is harsh and unfair. He accuses her of wheedling and scheming her way into Armstrong's affections, career and bank balance, ignoring the fact that she was a much bigger star than Armstrong when they first met and that she never gave up her career as a pianist and bandleader.

Although Armstrong later regretted crediting her with his transformation into "the world's greatest trumpeter" (as she originally billed him), Lil groomed the "hick" and encouraged him to develop his own style. When he confessed to being nervous about playing high Fs on stage, she made him practise high Gs in their living room. Armstrong eventually outgrew her ministrations and moved to New York. But without a mentor, his career was directionless. It took Joe Glaser, a boxing promoter and convicted rapist, pimp and paedophile, to make Armstrong an international star, enforcing a touring regime that called for an average of 350 concerts a year for the rest of his life. Glaser capitalised on his client's desire to please at all costs and under his management, Armstrong played showstoppers night after night, hitting 200 of his trademark high Cs in a single chorus, "murdering his lip but delighting audiences". Throughout his life, Armstrong sought father figures in the thugs and pimps who surrounded him, and he loved his white knight dearly. But when Armstrong died, he was worth $500,000, whereas Glaser's fortune was estimated at $3 million.

Bergreen has an intimate acquaintance with the "Jazz Age" and brings to life its leading lights, but he has little knowledge of its music. When he dismisses Fletcher Henderson, whose orchestra fielded some of the greatest musicians of that era, as bland, he exposes this ignorance. More revealing is his failure to recognise the importance of Armstrong's involvement with Jack Teagarden and the All-Stars in the 1940s; in reading this biography, it would appear that the only major contribution Armstrong made to jazz music was at the beginning of his career. Finally, Bergreen does not do justice to Armstrong's singing. There are only a handful of true jazz vocalists, and Armstrong was one of them.

But anyone who has heard Armstrong scat his way through Hollywood numbers will enjoy this heartfelt celebration of the man. As Bergreen says, the gangsters and prostitutes of New Orleans were the inspiration behind Armstrong's music, and the way Bergreen tells it, you can hear them in everything he played.