A reader writes:
I greatly enjoyed your Mencken book and am looking forward to the Armstrong bio. I have enjoyed some writing about him in the past, but never felt I read anything definitive–so please write that book!
To which the only possible response is…yikes! I don’t think there can be such a thing as a definitive biography of a great man. Louis Armstrong is simply too large, both as an artist and as a man, to be summed up for all time between the covers of a single book. Even if such a thing were possible, the resulting book would be unreadably long. That’s why the subtitle of The Skeptic was “A Life of H.L. Mencken,” not “The Life of H.L. Mencken.” As I said in the preface, “I have made no attempt to be exhaustive, so as to avoid being exhausting.”
So what am I trying to do? The answer can be found in this excerpt from the preface to my book, of which the first seven chapters (there are twelve) are now complete. If you want to know why I decided to write yet another book about Satchmo, the answer is here.
* * *
Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, and much has been written about his life and work, some of it penetrating and perceptive. Yet this is, surprisingly, the first fully sourced biography of Armstrong to be written by an author who is also a trained musician–though it is not a “scholarly” biography in the ordinary sense of the word. I see this book less as a work of original scholarship than an act of synthesis, a narrative biography based on the research of those academic scholars and other investigators who in recent years have unearthed a wealth of hitherto unknown information about Armstrong, especially regarding his early years….
I have also been privileged to draw on archival material unavailable to previous biographers, including 650 reels of tape recordings privately made by Armstrong during the last quarter-century of his life and subsequently deposited by Lucille, his fourth and last wife, in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College/CUNY. These recordings, as will become evident, are of considerable significance, and I have made extensive use of them, just as I have drawn heavily on Armstrong’s own writings, both published and unpublished. He was one of a handful of jazz musicians, and the only major one, to leave behind a substantial body of prose writing (including two full-length autobiographies, dozens of magazine articles, and hundreds of letters) in which his thoughts are presented in wholly or largely unmediated form, and it is in his own words that he comes across most clearly.
I have sought to make every page of this book comprehensible to the general reader. At the same time, I hope it will be of interest to specialists, especially those who know more about Armstrong’s music than his life. It goes without saying–or should–that his music was the most important thing about him, but his personal story, in addition to shedding light on the wellsprings of his art, is significant in its own right, and is no less deserving of a historically aware interpretation….
Armstrong was a child of his time, not ours, and some of the things he did and said as an adult are scarcely intelligible to those who know little about the long-lost world of his youth. Even in his own time he was widely misunderstood, often by people who should have known better (and who in some cases came to know better). For this reason I have tried to place him and his achievements in the widest possible perspective. He was, of course, the central figure in twentieth-century jazz, but he was also a key figure in the modern movement in art, as well as an emblematic figure in the history of American culture and, in the opinion of all who knew him, a great man. “I know of no man for whom I had more admiration and respect,” Bing Crosby wrote to Lucille after Armstrong died. The ultimate purpose of this book is to explain to a new generation of listeners why those words still ring true.