Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia

By Derry, Sebastian | Notes, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia

Derry, Sebastian, Notes

Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia. By Michael Meckna. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. [x, 432 p. ISBN: 0-313-30137-9. $65.] Illustrations, discography, chronology, filmography, bibliography, index.

Though music encyclopedias are somewhat commonplace, those devoted to individual musicians are less so; rarer still is one whose subject is a single jazz musician. In this regard, Michael Meckna's Satchmo is a first, an encyclopedia devoted entirely to legendary jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (1901-1971). Nearly 35 years have passed since his death, but Armstrong and his legacy are still very much alive and with us. A performer and musician whose life and accomplishments left an indelible stamp on the twentieth century's musical landscape, Armstrong's influence and popularity-already the stuff of legend-show no signs of waning at the onset of the twenty-first century.

For many Armstrong is revered as the quintessential jazz musician, an icon, the very embodiment of the art form itselfjazz journalist and historian Dan Morgenstern refers to him as "King Louis" (Ole Brask,/ozz People [New York: Da Capo Press, 1993]). Armstrong's life, his musicianship, and his impact on jazz and beyond continue to be the subject of numerous films, books, essays, and research. Notwithstanding this formidable canon, Meckna has now undertaken the daunting task of distilling a good portion of it into a single volume.

As professor of musicology at Texas Christian University, Meckna is no stranger to his subject, having already published several articles on Armstrong, in addition to writing a brief biographical essay on the trumpeter for his previous book, TwentiethCentury Brass Soloists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994). In the preface to Satchmo Meckna makes plain his rationale for the encyclopedia, wherein after a survey of the literature he "concluded that there was a great need for a reference book with detailed yet user-friendly entries on topics such as Armstrong's influences, musical style, legacy, friends, family, critics, hobbies, movies, tours, writings and recordings." (p. ix)

And detailed Satchmo certainly is. Meckna has done yeoman's service in gathering and arranging a trove of discographical, historical, biographical, and bibliographical material on Armstrong. The book is well organized (with entries that include names, terms, and places appearing in boldface where they first occur) and further divided into seven sections: the encyclopedia proper, four appendices ("Satchmo On CD," "Chronology," "Movies," and "On the Web" respectively), a selective bibliography, and an index. Eleven clearly reproduced black and white historic photographs of Armstrong are interspersed throughout the text. Yet for all the care taken in the book's organization, it is at the point of the individual entries where this level of care is lacking, and where there are various anomalies to be found that bear further exploration.

To begin, if we take Meckna at his word (as he states in the preface above), then one would expect to find within the encyclopedia those entries initially enumerated, to wit: influences, musical style, legacy, friends, family, critics, hobbies, movies, tours, writings, and recordings. But in fact only five of the eleven entries appear in the encyclopedia as stated-style, critics, movies, writings, and recordings. And while this could be characterized as a mere oversight and nothing more, it does raise the question of what the underlying basis or criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) might be that guided the author's choices and selections.

Of the 1500-plus entries that comprise the encyclopedia, fully more than half (nearly 900) are devoted to descriptions of titles of individual songs recorded by Armstrong, rendering the book a de facto discography as much as anything else. Varying considerably in their level of detail, most (but by no means all) of these song entries are cross-referenced by a compact disc number to Appendix 1: "Satchmo on CD," which lists 63 Armstrong compact disc recordings alphabetically by title.

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