Review: SATCHMO: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong


Rami Shamir

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.

The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong
by Steven Brower

Introduction by Hilton Als (Abrams, 2009)

Review by Rami Shamir

The Revolution initiated by Gore Vidal with his Empire series is continued and modernized by Steven Brower in SATCHMO: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong. It is a Revolution that challenges the way in which history is told, read, and accepted. Mr. Vidal, a master puppeteer of letters, writes in 1876:

I meant to tell you that I had an amusing conversation with Garfield about history. He assured me that one can learn the truth about the past through old newspapers, letters, diaries. Then he proposed to help me write, as it were, the history of Mr. Blaine by setting down in the Herald all the lies he would like to see in print.

SATCHMO: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong initially appears to be a beautifully crafted art book, whose subject is the collage work of Louis Armstrong, the Twentieth-Century man who has been simplified into the one dimensionality of iconization as “The Father of Jazz” by one-too-many-failed Charles Schermerhorn Schuylers listening to one-too-many-successful General Garfields. At its essence, however, Steven Brower’s book is a new form of biography—an offspring of Mr. Vidal’s 1876.

From the start Brower tears away at the destruction that accompanies all simplicity by striking at the core—the name “Louis Armstrong.”

A personality so large he simply could not be known by one name. He answered to Little Louis, Dip, Dippermouth, Gate, Gatemouth, Rhythm Jaws, Satchelmouth, Satchmo, Ambassador, Satch, or Pops…he was Louis to those who knew him and Louie to those who didn’t. Billie holiday called him “the Landlord” because “he owns the building.”

Brower continues:

No description defines him: He was at once a singer, musician, songwriter, entertainer, performer, actor, movie star, celebrity, writer, ambassador of goodwill, and as it turns out, a talented collagist.

Brower extends advances in recent design technology from the merely aesthetic to the essentially integral. The full page scans of Armstrong’s notebook pages juxtaposed with Brower’s text and interrupted by vast stretches of stunning, scanned representations of the subject at hand—Armstrong’s collages—produce a work that is its own collage: its own object d’art de livre; and—when read as history—an important advance in the field of historiography. With this book, Steven Brower finds himself well situated in the current avant-garde movement that is redefining the way history is narrated for contemporary readers. In many ways, SATCMO: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong is the biographical counterpart to the groundbreaking autobiographical work Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix, released this March by Ronald Groenenboom and Sonic Youth.

Most importantly, however, SATCHMO: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong reminds us that the book as an object is indispensable in a time when the fate of the printed book is very much debated. Mr. Vidal reminded the world that history is best remembered when it is told by the best. After all, he did negate all previous misconceptions of Vice President Aaron Burr with one novel. Steven Brower, though utilizing a very different language than his predecessor, is likely do the same with Louis Armstrong. Where Mr. Vidal eradicated the biased vilifications placed on Aaron Burr by taking literature to the house of history, Steven Brower will eradicate the pleasant Sambo image of Louis Armstrong by bringing him, in all his pentimento brilliance, to overshadow the standard conservative approaches to historiography.