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Chronicling an American genius in 'Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism,' by Thomas Brothers

He Lived to Perform

Mar. 20, 2014
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Context. This is the sole reason Thomas Brothers is dedicating years of his life to writing books chronicling the world and the art of Louis Armstrong. His mission is to provide context concerning the emergence of this musical genius into American culture.

Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism (W.W. Norton) is the second in Brothers’ chronological depiction of a now maturing artist. The book discusses 1922-1932, a pivotal decade in Armstrong’s life that saw him depart New Orleans for Chicago and begin to make the recordings that would keep his music alive to the present day. Brothers shows that while many of these records demonstrate brilliant performances and should be heralded as genius incarnate, there is a lot more to Armstrong’s story. The author rightly says that, for today’s audience, the records of Louis Armstrong are the “main event;” it’s all we have. But to the artist himself, “These commercial recordings were,” argues Brothers, “merely a side show.” Armstrong lived for live performance.

Brothers is not afraid to make some startlingly large statements. Socially, the author repeatedly stresses that Armstrong “was not interested in cultural assimilation.” Musically, Brothers insists that were it not for his remarkably strong understanding of a soloist’s use of harmonic precision in relationship to a song’s melody, Armstrong would have been “a footnote in jazz history.”

What saves the author when skating on this type of interpretive thin ice is his documentation and observation. Brothers defends his positions with such solid research and well-argued logic that his potentially questionable ideas soon emerge as clear, if not unexpectedly obvious. To his credit, the author is quick to indicate when he is presenting conjecture—as when he describes how some distant and unrecorded musician may have sounded. But even here he is convincing in the aural portraits he assembles for the reader.

Brothers dissects Armstrong’s recordings of the 1920s with specific notations worthy of an archeological dig, examining the music with the care it deserves. Not content merely to explain his findings, he also wants the reader to have firsthand awareness of the specimens under discussion. To that end, Brothers cites various places where the original recordings can be heard, pointing to Armstrong’s own demonstrations of the innovations and musical elements being described.

In spite of his meticulous parsing of Armstrong’s playing, Brothers never loses sight of the reason that these records were first purchased and enjoyed. The music was exciting, inspirational and life affirming. Even by means of the imperfect sound reproduction machines of the 1920s, Armstrong connected with a huge number of people, on a global scale.

Master of Modernism continues Brothers’ investigation into the fascinating life that began in the author’s previous book, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans. Here’s hoping he plans to continue his excellent work, taking Armstrong’s story into the 1940s and beyond.


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