Book of a lifetime: Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, By Louis Armstrong


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

My parents loved the blues and early jazz, and I grew up to the sounds of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly and Fats Waller.

But to hear Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings was to be taken somewhere no one else had been before, in so many different ways. The virtuosity of the trumpet line, the range, the exuberance, the joy, the yelps and growls and rumbles, and that gorgeous golden tone. It was unmistakeable, and unmissable.

I didn't know then that more than anyone else Louis had invented the jazz solo, as a long instrumental improvisation set concerto-like against the sound of the band, weaving an entirely new melody through a sequence of chord changes, raising and relaxing the tension, tightly constrained and yet perfectly free, playing with and against the tune, throwing in grace-notes and blue notes like confetti, and all the while floating across the beat with a grace and subtlety that make even the simplest Armstrong solo all but impossible to notate on paper.

I didn't know then that Louis had also had a seminal effect in popularising and extending scat singing, bringing the same ideas to the voice as an instrument that he had done to the trumpet. And I didn't know until several decades later that Louis had done the same a third time, but on paper.

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans is the result. It tells the story of Louis's early life, and it is a marvel. He grew up in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, the illegitimate son of a part-time prostitute and a father who walked out when he was one year old. His formal education ended before he was 11, and he learned to play the cornet at the Home for Colored Waifs, where he was sent after firing off a pistol on New Year's Eve. He was black, in a world controlled by whites. Yet by the age of 21 he was tearing up a storm alongside King Oliver in the hottest jazz band in Chicago.

The book is peopled by a vast Runyonesque array of hoodlums and heroes, the dialogue crackles like a bush fire, and the whole is borne along on a huge billow of brio and good humour. Louis has his own ethical code, but he never preaches.

Alongside the jokes and japes, he makes you feel his moments of pain and frustration and anger - and his awesome capacity for hard work. Forget jazz; this book gives Louis Armstrong good claim to be considered one of the great American prose stylists in his own right.

Jesse Norman MP was Parliamentarian of the Year 2012. His biography of Edmund Burke is published by William Collins