Monday, March 30, 2009

What A Wonderful Book (To Look At)

About a month ago, I issued a heads up about Steven Brower's book of Armstrong's collages. Well, that book is now in bookstores everywhere and after picking it up, I can attest that it is a "gassuh."

As many people know, Louis Armstrong was a fanatic about tape recording. He recorded EVERYTHING: his own shows, other people's records, joke-telling sessions with friends, arguments with Lucille and even some humorous boozy getogethers with others (you have to hear a completely bombed Illinois Jacquet talking about the importance of Louis Armstrong). The tapes are magnificent and made up a huge chunk of research for my own upcoming book.

But even more interestingly, Armstrong spent a lot of his free time designing the drab cardboard boxes that encased the tapes. Here, Armstrong got to show off a side few knew about him, that of a visual artist. The Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College has all the tapes and all the collages but even they realize that not everyone get out to Queens to revel in them. Thus, first, a nice selection from the private tapes was released on disc two of last year's set of Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts. And now, Brower has done a heroic job designing a beautiful book of nothing but Armstrong's collages, with a couple of samples of Armstrong's writing thrown in for good measure.

If you've never seen an Armstrong collage, here are two examples I dug up from the Internet:

The first one is worded from I'm guessing was an official invitation for Armstrong's visit with the Pope in 1968. But notice how Armstrong cut out the words and reworded it so it starts by saying "Mr. and Mrs. Most Holy Father Louis Armstrong"! The second one with the four heads is pretty creative, too (and notice the contents of the tape: opera and Milt Hinton combo).

I didn't count how many collages Brower included but it's a lot and his comments on them are very perceptive. And, as already mentioned, adding touches of Armstrong's own typewritten and handwritten letters was a wonderful idea. This might be the most beautiful book I have ever held.

Unfortunately, Brower's sense of research kind of abandoned him in the text, which sometimes reads like a high school term paper. Fortunately, there's not much of it, just some brief biographical sketches, but the errors are glaring. Here's a few that stuck out:
*The opening timeline has a few mistakes. Armstrong recorded "The Saints" in 1938, not 1939 and he met Pope Pius XII in 1949, not 1950.
*Armstrong's name is given as Louis David Armstrong, a first. It's Louis Daniel Armstrong (and no one really knows where the Daniel came from)
*Armstrong didn't receive an Academy Award nomination for his work in the film Going Places. Only the song "Jeepers Creepers" was nominated.
*This sentence is a mess: "At the Hollywood Bowl in 1952 Louis good-naturedly parodied bebop, sporting a golf cap with a pom-pom on top, singing 'Bye Bye Bebop' to the tune of 'Bye Bye Blackbird.'" Where to begin? It wasn't 'Blackbird,' it was the "Whiffenpoof Song." It was recorded for Decca in 1954 and performed on television at the Hollywood Bowl later that year.
*Dizzy Gillespie and Armstrong didn't jam on The Jackie Gleason Show. It was a Timex Jazz Show hosted by Gleason.
*Armstrong was carried on a throne in Leonpoldville during his 1960 visit to Africa, not in 1956
*Armstrong never performed "Pennies From Heaven" on The David Frost Show (Laurence Bergreen made this same mistake). He just played it backstage when he saw Bing Crosby, as reported by Dan Morgenstern.

There are many more mistakes (that's not Joe Glaser in the collage on page 244!) but seriously, if you bought this book for the biographical sections on Armstrong, you've got to get your priorities straight. The biographical sections even read as if Brower was forced to write them (he goes off for long periods of time on film sequences that feel like they're there to beef up the word count). However, when Brower begins discussing the actual collages on page 74, his writing comes alive. Here, he feels confident in the subject and it shows.

But please, please, please, don't let some factual errors stand in the way of purchasing such an amazing book. If you're a Pops nut like me, you NEED this book as it paints some beautiful pictures of Armstrong's offstage life. I thank Steven Brower for his work and for creating such a gorgeous book. Go to Amazon or click here to order it NOW!

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