Eaton’s portrayal of Armstrong is both believable and sympathetic, although one must be somewhat skeptical of her attempts to indicate his personal thoughts. The authority of the early New Orleans portion of the book, when Armstrong is youngest, is aided by Eaton’s marvelous sense of historicity; on another front, however, it is slightly hindered by her lack of musical discussion.
The author wonderfully portrays the flavoring of New Orleans life. She describes the city as a raucous, colorful, multicultural world and skillfully integrates into her portrait backward glances at the city’s past as a French possession and slave trade center. Her most eloquent passages tying together the past and present come in her presentations of Armstrong’s life as a musician on a Mississippi steamboat. As the boat docks at various entrepôts of the South, Eaton gives thumbnail sketches of the minor metropolises, characterizing their present statuses and the historical fabrics in which they are embedded.
This structuring of the material, in which the tale of Armstrong’s life is caught up in a geographical narrative discussing the history of his region, gives the biography the density of a nineteenth century novel. It also helps readers understand Armstrong as a product of the rich musical character of his environment.
The book’s one weakness in describing New Orleans, a rather curious failing in a musician’s biography, is that it does...
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Eaton’s book appeared in 1955, when Jim Crow laws, laws that restricted the rights of African Americans, were still in force in the South. In a number of ways, this biography protests against such practices, though it is by no means a militant document and passes in silence over some episodes of seemingly prejudicial treatment. When Armstrong is arrested for disorderly conduct on New Year’s Eve, for example, Eaton makes no comment on whether the white police officer and judge who jail him are motivated by racial stereotyping; she merely reports the events.
In two important ways, however, Eaton does mark and implicitly condemn racial injustices. First, she constantly makes the reader aware of the segregated conditions that hamstrung the young Armstrong in his search for a livelihood. Eaton carefully explains, for example, the many precautions that Armstrong’s quartet had to take to perform surreptitiously in the white nightclub district of New Orleans. The patrons there wanted to hear the youths, but segregationist laws made it outlawed territory for the group.
Second, Eaton’s portrait of Armstrong acts as a reprimand to racist institutions. Armstrong earnestly and honestly strives to make a living, yet he is checked at every turn by a system that makes almost no provision for African-American advancement. The fact that he succeeds because of his almost superhuman effort is certainly to his credit, but it also functions to discredit a social organization in which a person of average abilities, because of his or her color, has few prospects. Thus, the book will strike a chord in all young readers with a concern for justice and tolerance.