Duke University Alumni Magazine

Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words

By Louis Armstrong; edited by Thomas Brothers. Oxford University Press, 1999. 255 pages. $25.

isten to Louis Armstrong's trumpet solos on "Potato Head Blues" and "Weatherbird Rag," or his magnificent cadenza on "West End Blues." Listen to Louis Armstrong sing the melody on "Dinah" and "Ain't Misbehavin'," or scat-singing "Heebie Jeebies," and you hear the same uncanny sense of phrasing and rhythmic nuance that characterizes his trumpet playing. Louis Armstrong had one trumpet in his hands, and one trumpet in his voice--two instruments that spoke the essence of jazz.

Thomas Brothers, associate professor of music at Duke, has edited a collection of pieces written by Armstrong that tell us about the life of this twentieth-century musical genius, about the culture of jazz and the burgeoning American entertainment industry, and about the struggles a black man had in surviving injustice and racism. Brothers writes, "Armstrong's written legacy is a treasure for jazz history, for the history of African-American culture, and indeed, for the cultural history of the United States."

Armstrong's own words provide delightful reading for what they reveal about being an American in a particular time and place--and his written pieces swing. His colorful language is used as artfully as the notes and phrases of a jazz solo. A stress here, some repetition there, and the invented literary equivalents of "blue notes" pepper the book with a vitality we most often associate with the bandstand.

Brothers carefully stays out of the way of that "music." In a well-conceived introduction, he explains how readers will be led through the four main periods of Armstrong's life: the early days in New Orleans, the spectacular rise of his career in 1920s Chicago and New York, the touring life of the 1940s and 1950s, and the final years in Corona, New York. And Brothers shows some of the forces working on the musician-author, particularly noting that Armstrong wrote to stay connected to his roots.

When Joe Oliver summoned Armstrong to join him in Chicago in 1922, he had to leave New Orleans and the familiar surroundings of his youth. Letters from home kept up his connection with New Orleans, which meant much to him. Then, as his career developed and he became associated with manager Joe Glaser, Armstrong discovered that written materials could prove advantageous for publicity purposes. Though he suffered racial discrimination throughout his life, he learned as a young professional entertainer that white writers served as intermediaries between black musicians and white audiences. Therefore, he cultivated written relationships with those who would speak to the national public about his music and his personality, freely "greasing their mitts" while setting the historical record straight about how jazz started and what the music was about.

As we read, we see that Armstrong viewed himself as a writer. It became a passionate hobby. As he traveled, he wrote with pencil, pen, or the portable typewriter that was always with him. The lessons in his words--thoughts on surviving poverty, the virtues of strong communal bonds, techniques for coping with racism, relations with women, and the maintenance of daily health--are profound. Like a soloist producing chorus after swinging chorus, Armstrong reveals his heart and soul through each poignant section in this collection.

Brothers frames each written piece with highly insightful editorial comments that outline Armstrong's significant points. As a longtime professor of jazz history, I applaud this format, and similar collections by historians Mark Tucker and Bill Kirchner focusing on important and often hard-to-find publications by or about Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. These works will expand discussions of these three major artists in jazz history classes everywhere.

The piece "Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907" is a particularly valuable and illuminating essay. Brothers, in his editorial preface to its thirty-two pages, shares the following:

He began writing it while recovering from a life-threatening illness at New York's Beth Israel Hospital, inspired, apparently, by his doctor Gary Zucker, who had just sung a Russian lullaby that Armstrong recognized from childhood. Armstrong first learned the lullaby from a Jewish family for whom he worked. He dedicates his book [the essay] to his longtime manager Joe Glaser, another Jew who figured prominently in his life.

Brothers goes on to explain the significance of Armstrong's message. "Armstrong speaks bluntly and somewhat bitterly about racially conditioned attitudes among whites, blacks, Creoles, and Jews." Later the editor points out that Armstrong urges African Americans toward "values of thrift, family and group loyalty, honesty, and good work habits." In many of the pieces in this collection, his written words contradict the visual persona of the smiling, unassuming, and jocular entertainer with which he and other black artists were stereotyped by so many Americans.

Brothers concludes the book with the heartwarming and affirming response Armstrong wrote to a question posed by the editors of Esquire magazine. "For its December 1969 issue, Esquire asked twenty-five elderly celebrities to give some advice to younger generations, since 'our years tend to be threescore and ten'--that is, since the celebrities would soon be dead. The celebrities responded with lots of advice. But Armstrong was one of the few to respond with comments about aging."

Armstrong's comments provide a fitting conclusion to the volume: "My belief and satisfaction is that, as long as a person breathes, they still have a chance to exercise the talents they were born with.É Just want to say that music has no age. Most of your great composers--musicians--are elderly people, way up there in age, they will live forever. There's no such thing as on the way out. As long as you are still doing something interesting and good. You are in business as long as you are breathing.É Yeah."

Louis Armstrong's life is a "yeah!" and Thomas Brothers gets one too for organizing and editing this important collection of writings.

--James Ketch

Ketch, a jazz trumpeter, is a music professor and director of jazz studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex

By David Guy '70. Shambhala. 260 pages. $23.95

he forces of social conservatism in today's culture often seek to vilify sexuality and issues associated with it. But is sex an enemy that must be subdued before spiritual practice can happen, or could it be a vehicle for enlightenment? Guy explores both sides of the question by looking at the place of sex in his own life and meditation practice, and in the lives of figures he has come to regard as pioneers on the frontiers of sex and spirituality, including Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and philosopher Alan Watts.

From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America

By Mary N. Woods '72. University of California Press. 281 pages. $50.

rchitecture professor Woods has written the first in-depth study of the development of architecture as a profession, dispelling the prevailing misunderstanding that the practice developed under men formally schooled in "architecture as an art" and revealing instead that its roots lie in hands-on building workshops or architectural offices in the early 1800s. While examining the contributions of such well-known architects as H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Stanford White, she also discusses the less familiar contributions of women, African Americans, and regional practitioners. Her account highlights the intersections of architecture with building, labor, and business, and in providing a more accurate history of the profession, Woods is able to examine its future as well.

The Angelic Darkness

By Richard Zimler '77. W.W. Norton & Co. 255 pages. $23.95.

ollowing his debut novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Zimler has written a haunting, hypnotic story of suspense, eroticism, and transformation, combining the mundane and the fantastic in a complex and provocative tale. When Bill Ticino's marriage breaks up, he meets a man who draws him into a kabbalistic world of

storytelling, ritual, and the occult. As Ticino explores his past, he travels down a perilous sexual and spiritual path, facing the dual possibilities of destruction and redemption.

Counting the Public In: Presidents, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy

By Douglas C. Foyle Ph.D.'93. Columbia University Press. 379 pages. $49.50 cloth; $20.50 paper.

oes the public alter American foreign policy choices or does the government try to change public opinion to support its policies? Government professor Foyle argues that the answer depends on the president. Positing four distinct types of decision-makers (delegates, executors, pragmatists, and guardians), he examines the foreign policy choices of all the presidents since World War II, analyzes decisions made by Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and provides detailed case studies of military interventions.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Palmer Memorial Institute: What One Young African-American Woman Could Do

By Richard F. Knapp A.M. '71 and Charles W. Wadelington. University of North Carolina Press. 320 pages. $39.95 cloth; $16.95 paper.

n 1901, eighteen-year-old Charlotte Hawkins Brown hopped off a Southern Railway train in Guilford County, North Carolina. Single, black, and from Cambridge, Massachusettes, she had come to the backwoods to teach at a small struggling school for African Americans. She stayed for more than fifty years. When the failing school was closed after her first year, she founded the Palmer Memorial Institute, using all her energy and determination to serve students.

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