by Ricky Riccardi
reviewed by Jake Cole
Ricky Riccardi’s “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years” is the most vital, and long-overdue, reappraisal of a contest jazzman’s late career since Paul Tingen’s “Miles Beyond” about Miles Davis. As I read Riccardi’s biography, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the vastly different Armstrong and Davis, none more important than their shared desire to win back black audiences. But where Davis found himself confronted by shifting cultural appetites among black youth, Armstrong faced the far more hurtful accusation of selling out his race for fame.
Moving chronologically from the dissolution of Armstrong’s big band in favor of the All-Stars through his death in 1971, Riccardi uses an impressive assortment of research, anecdotes and analysis to argue for Armstrong’s continued legitimacy as an artist as well as the pioneering racial stances and actions he took as the world’s most popular performer.
In Riccardi’s eyes, pop tunes like the Decca recordings or later hits were mere outgrowths of Armstrong’s inherent thirst to try out popular music, a trait that stretched back to his early days. Besides, the author deftly deconstructs even the most throwaway tune to demonstrate how a bit of old toss like “Hello, Dolly!” could be made into a Beatles-dethroning hit through the inexplicable presence and power of Armstrong’s unique take.
Riccardi has a gift for putting Armstrong’s music in words; as he describes Armstrong’s best studio LP, “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” you can practically hear Trummy Young’s hysterically bawdy trombone on “St. Louis Blues.” Or check out Riccardi’s minutely observed account of the exquisite agony of Satch’s rendition of his signature protest anthem “Black and Blue” for an East Berlin audience, a performance that strips Armstrong bare for a fleeting moment. Read Riccardi’s passage on the rendition while watching a tape of it, and every phrase lines up with Satch’s body language and impassioned delivery.
But the energy with which Riccardi infuses Armstrong’s music on print is nothing compared to the music itself, which broke down more barriers than the rising community of intellectual black musicians because of the popularity so many dismissed. Riccardi takes great pains to point out how many venues Armstrong opened up, and he also notes how the trumpeter’s handful of shockingly direct statements on race, especially during the Little Rock Crisis, never convinced his colleagues and critics how he really felt.
Riccardi recounts the effects of Armstrong touring for the state department, itself a staggering fact when one considers the U.S. government sending a black man around the world as a cultural ambassador. Civil war in the Congo actually ceased for a day so both sides could enjoy Armstrong’s playing as one. If that isn’t uniting the people, what is?
For these accomplishments to be dismissed infuriated but also motivated Armstrong, and it’s possible that Satchmo maintained the level of quality Riccardi insists he did out of a desire to prove everyone wrong. But the author also shows the pricklier side of that impulse, giving hilarious accounts of Satch shaming an arrogant Benny Goodman or a condescending philharmonic director on stage by promptly stealing the limelight with ferocious playing. Armstrong may have taken decades’ worth of abuse from critics and peers, but he made sure to teach a lesson to those who had the temerity to do it in his presence.
“What a Wonderful World” is incisive, revelatory and often funny, detailing as it does Armstrong’s penchant for vulgar jokes and his lengthy extolment of the virtues of an herbal laxative called Swiss Kriss to anyone who would listen, including members of the British Royal Family. But it’s also an insightful, thoroughly readable account of a man whose brilliance and iconic stature are too often viewed as separate creative periods when they never stopped coexisting. It is nearly impossible not to like Louis, and by the time one reaches the end of Riccardi’s bio, it’s hard not to mourn Armstrong’s final years and miss him even 40 years later. But no talent that huge can ever truly die, and Riccardi brings Satch to life with such verve that, if nothing else, “What a Wonderful World” will send you running to bolster any Louis Armstrong collection, regardless of size.
Ricky Riccardi describes himself as “a 30-year-old Louis Armstrong freak with a Master’s in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers.” He’s currently the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. “What a Wonderful World” is available on Amazon. To learn more about Armstrong and literally “listen” to Riccardi’s book, visit his blog, where he’s going chapter by chapter.