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.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project