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Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong

Steven Brower

(Abrams; US: Mar 2009)

Long has Louis Armstrong been heralded as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Armstrong transformed popular music while serving as an ambassador for racial equality (he financially backed Martin Luther King, Jr.). Of all his talents, though, Armstrong also held dear his collages and artwork. 


Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong goes above and beyond any mere biography by showing more private portions of the legend’s life. In this rare treat, the modern day fan of Louis Armstrong can see that he was not only adept at manipulating audio spatial concepts, but also carried this insight into the visual realm.


The book is organized by a timeline and biography of Armstrong’s life, with extra details provided by Armstrong’s personal assistance, Phoebe Jacobs. Author Steven Brower offers a thorough explanation into the personal side of Armstrong, providing crisp color scans of his never-before-seen collages, scrapbook pages, personal writings, and artwork. These color reproductions capture the wit and brilliance of the legend. For the first time, fans of his persona and works can delve deeply into the mind of a more private Armstrong.


“Well, you know, my hobbie (one of them anyway) is using a lot of scotch tape. My hobbie is to pick out the different things during what I read and piece them together and [make] a little story of my own”, Armstrong wrote. Often he would use photos of himself and others, photos of women (and anything celebrating the female form), snippets from greeting cards, movie stills, et al. all while inserting references to marijuana and Swiss Kriss, a type of laxative he and wife Lucille touted. He would insert handwritten notes and letters into these pictures. It seems he always had a pair of scissors handy.


Just as Armstrong was known for creating new spatial structures in music, so was he able to manipulate the spatial quality of his artwork. He “ragged” on jazz melodies and invented a new style of singing, i.e., putting sounds in unusual spots and syncopating rhythms. His brand new style of phrasing had the world talking. He would take a melody and play something else on top. 


Armstrong took these unfamiliar spatial concepts to his collages, for instance by using medical tape to outline a particular picture. He would use implied lines, organizing his canvas so that the viewer’s eye moves a certain way around the piece. He coordinated colors and utilized negative space.


The majority of the book is page after page of Armstrong’s scanned covers of his record collection. For instance, “Reel 32” shows a picture of Armstrong standing across from an unnamed woman. The medical tape forms an oval frame and a piece of tape bisecting the photo separates the two figures. 


This book’s rare glimpses into Armstrong’s personal thoughts allows for an extra connection to the icon. We can see his pen strokes, the placement of each piece of tape, and the angle at which he cut a picture. One can really gain a sense of the time and care it took to construct these images. We can get a lot of information from stories, but this visual accompaniment we get here adds extra life to the effusive Armstrong persona. Something tells me that if he were alive today, Armstrong would make one hell of a mixtape.

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