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Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism hits every hit note

Louis and his best friend
Louis and his best friend
Author's collection

When Louis Armstrong stepped off the train in Chicago in August 1922, he was a budding young trumpeter with roots firmly in the Deep South. Just 10 years later, he had transformed himself into one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. It was post-Reconstruction America, an era teeming with invention and racial oppression—the microphone, talking pictures, Jim Crow laws—and Armstrong confidently embraced the changes of his time without forgetting his New Orleans background. His skill at negotiating history and progress, persecution and freedom ultimately led him to transform the African-American musical vernacular—and lay the foundation for jazz itself. Renowned music scholar and Duke University professor Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism (W. W. Norton & Company, $39.95) picks up where the author’s previous work—Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans—left off, chronicling the young musician’s most creatively fertile decade, a period that includes his crowning musical achievements at a time when Armstrong and his bandmates couldn’t count on food or even a friendly face during their travels across America.
Borrowing its title from a slogan used to publicize Armstrong’s live performances in the early 1930s, the book tells the story of how a dark-skinned black man without a formal education became one of the most influential artists of our time. Brothers’s colorful prose and keen eye for detail take readers on an intimate journey through Armstrong’s musical transformation. Mixing personal accounts written by Armstrong’s contemporaries with newly digitized historical documents and Armstrong’s own words, Brothers re-creates the racially charged landscape of early-twentieth-century America, placing each of his musical achievements firmly in their historical and personal context.
Readers will experience an environment that both challenged Armstrong’s survival and nurtured his musical maturity. They’ll meet a musician they may not entirely recognize: an uneducated man who married a well-educated woman, a performer with the cunning to musically taunt policemen in his audience without their knowing, and a dedicated advocate of marijuana use. They’ll learn about the development of jazz from a predominantly black form that incorporated elements of the blues and collective improvisation, culminating in Armstrong’s invention of two modern musical styles—one instrumental and one vocal—that permanently changed the course of popular music. The first style—based on what Brothers calls “the fixed and variable model,” brought to the United States by slaves from sub-Saharan Africa—intensified the musical presence of Armstrong’s African-American heritage. The second, vocal style resulted from his efforts to succeed with a mainstream white audience.
Gracefully weaving one of the most compelling life stories of the twentieth century with the creation of jazz in the United States, Brothers writes a groundbreaking account rich in personal, cultural, and musical history. For aficionados of biography and music criticism alike, Louis Armstrong: Master of Moderism is the definitive account of a trumpet virtuoso, seductive crooner, and consummate entertainer, a man whose musical legacy arguably remains uncontested today.