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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