Louis Armstrong Still Surprises

Professor's biography follows jazz great during his most creative years

Louis Armstrong was one of the early stars of jazz when the music burst into national consciousness in the first two decades of the past century.  But while he remained wildly popular until his death in 1971, his reputation as a master artist diminished.  Toward the end of Armstrong's career, his musical innovations were overtaken by bebop and other styles, and with each appearance in movies or at the White House, his joyful, appealing energy seemed to stand him apart from the darkness of the civil rights struggle that was tearing at the country. 

Much of this perception is wrong, says Duke music professor Thomas Brothers, whose biography, "Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism," was published in February.  It is Brothers' second work on Armstrong. Focusing on the most creative period of Armstrong's life, Brothers restores attention to his musical brilliance while also exploring how beneath that happy public persona, Armstrong fought and struggled with racism and its consequences.

An Armstrong Spotify List

Thomas Brothers selects three early Armstrong performances that showcase his best qualities.


Below, Brothers discusses three misperceptions about Armstrong and how it affected his career.  He includes a playlist of early Armstrong music that relates to Brothers' thesis.

1. People believed that all of his music was improvised.  Like most jazz soloists in the 1920s and 30s, Armstrong composed his solos, working them out over time and getting them right. They are compositions, not improvisations. There's a difference between music that is not easy to notate and something that is improvised. Armstrong composed music that sounds like it can't be notated, but although it was intricate, it wasn't improvised.

As jazz's popularity soared in this period, white audiences assumed that all African-American performers were spontaneous.  The belief was the musicians didn't understand what they were doing. The comparison can be made to vaudeville. People never thought of white performers on vaudeville improvising a dance routine.  But in jazz, dominated by African-American musicians, that distinction wasn't made. (See "Big Butter and Egg Man" (1926) left) 

2. Armstrong was a born genius.  He was actually a late bloomer. It was not until 1924, really, that he stepped fully into the spotlight as a soloist--at age 23. In my books, I try to explain how he got there. (See "Chimes Blues" (1923) for an early noted solo)

There's a whole history of racist ideology that goes with this misperception.  There's the assumption that African-Americans lack reasoning ability and don't calculate what they do.  It's natural or it's all a primitive mentality closely in touch with emotions.  The domain of reason is left for white performers, and Armstrong never got credit for his hard work.

3. Armstrong sold out. Many people believe the song recordings that start to dominate his recorded repertory in the early 1930s are a commercial sell out.  This repertory is magnificent. He adjusts to the demands of the repertory and the arrangements and comes out with beautiful transformations of songs that, in the original, often don't have much to offer.  It is a fantastic part of his oeuvre.  We're talking about a career that goes 50 years, that is a lot of longevity and flexibility. (See "Stardust" (1931))

Below: Louis Armstrong in 1940.  (Photo by William Gottlieb/Redferns)

Louis Armstrong