Published on January 17th, 2018 | by Darren Paltrowitz0
An Exclusive Look At The Louis Armstrong House Museum With Ricky Riccardi
A trumpeter, composer, singer and occasional actor from the 1920s to the 1960s, Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential figures in jazz. Known for still-popular recordings like “What A Wonderful World,” “Hello Dolly!” and “St. Louis Blues,” Armstrong is most likely the only person to have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, the Big Band & Jazz Hall Of Fame, and the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Even though Armstrong passed away close to 50 years ago, there are still previously-unheard recordings surfacing these days, as evidenced by titles released by Dot Time Records in 2017.
While Louis Armstrong is often associated with New Orleans, he spent his later years as a resident of Corona, Queens in New York. The legend’s Queens home has since been turned into The Louis Armstrong House Museum, which is open for visitors six days a week. To learn more about the House Museum, I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s archivist and curator, who turns out to be as interesting as Armstrong in many ways. Sadly, I had forgotten to ask Riccardi about the museum’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of “What A Wonderful World.”
When did you first become interested in Louis Armstrong? Do you remember your first exposure?
Ricky Riccardi: The “big bang” occured when I was 15. I was born in 1980 and for some reason, always gravitated towards entertainment from way before my birth: silent movies, 1950s sitcoms, obsolete vaudeville performers, etc. I happened to be a Jimmy Stewart fan and I knew some songs by bandleader Glenn Miller so when I stumbled across a movie from 1954, The Glenn Miller Story — featuring Stewart portraying Miller — I thought it would be fun to watch. Again, the year was 1995!
In the middle of the movie, Louis Armstrong appears and does just one song, “Basin Street Blues” –and it totally knocked me out. I knew of him but hadn’t really checked him out, which I now had to rectify. My mother took me to the local library and not knowing where to start, I blindly picked up a cassette compilation, 16 Most Requested Songs, which contained works Armstrong made for Columbia Records in the 1950s and 1960s. That cassette single-handedly changed my life. Track 14 was “St. Louis Blues,” and in the last few minutes of that song, I felt something in my brain shift and I knew I’d never be the same.
I went down the Armstrong wormhole, but soon discovered most of the books I picked up had a similar narrative: Louis Armstrong was a genius in the 1920s, but then he became a sellout, he went commercial, he was an Uncle Tom, he diminished as a musician, blah blah blah. So I went back and checked out young Armstrong and sure enough, he was a genius — but the music of the 1950s and 1960s is what changed MY life and he sounded like a genius on those recordings, too. So I began daydreaming about writing a book just on the last 25 years of Armstrong’s life. It was just a fantasy to a 17-year-old high school kid but fast forward several years and I got a Master’s in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers in 2005 and submitted a 350-page thesis on Armstrong’s later years. Finally, in 2011, I published my first book, What A Wonderful World: The Magic Of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years through Pantheon. I’m currently working on a “prequel” on Armstrong’s similarly neglected and misunderstood middle years for Oxford University Press, due out probably in 2020.
How did you get involved with The Louis Armstrong House Museum?
Ricky Riccardi: After graduating from Rutgers, I had this oversized Master’s Thesis and I had done a lot of research, but I was still missing a central component: Louis himself. I was born nine years after he died so I never got the chance to meet or interview him. But I had heard that he made several hundred reel-to-reel tapes and that the tapes were part of the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, held at Queens College. I made my first appointment in January 2006 and was blown away by the tapes because here was Armstrong speaking candidly and frankly about his music about life about racism about all sorts of subjects he usually didn’t touch on in his interviews of the period. I soon learned on one of his tapes that Armstrong made these tapes “for posterity,” as he put it, knowing that his story would be very important to future generations. I made several appointments in the next few years, just to listen to the tapes. It was like hanging out with him and gave me tremendous insight into the man and really helped shape what became the finished book.
But through this entire post-graduate 2005-2009 period, I couldn’t make a living as a jazz historian. My father was a painting contractor in Toms River, New Jersey so for four years, I was a full-time house painter. Slowly, though, I started taking steps towards pursuing my passion, hiring an agent in 2006, starting an all-Armstrong blog in 2007, being invited to present at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans in 2008 and finally getting the book deal with Pantheon. When the Armstrong House put up a job posting for full-time “Project Archivist,” I knew that was the moment all of this had been building toward. I didn’t have a library science background, but my reputation as an Armstrong authority was fairly concrete, so I was most thankful when Director Michael Cogswell hired me in October 2009. I haven’t looked back!
Do you have a favorite part of the museum?
Ricky Riccardi: The Museum is actually made up of two separate components: the actual Armstrong House and the Research Collections at Queens College. The Armstrong House is our main operation, Louis and Lucille’s home looking just as it did when they lived there, and is open six days a week. My favorite part of the House is Louis’ den, his room on the second floor where he’d make tapes, practice the trumpet, listen to music and entertain guests such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry.
The Research Collections, though, that’s my territory as that is what I am Director of. That’s where we have the fun stuff: the tapes, Louis’s trumpets, scrapbooks, etc. My favorite part of the Collections would have to be the trumpets, of which we have seven total. The Research Collections are open by appointment only, but we’re beginning construction on a “Louis Armstrong Education Center” that will be built directly across the Armstrong House and should be open in about two years. When it opens, all the materials at Queens College will move over to the new space, which will feature a state-of-the-art exhibit area, making it possible to see the House and the Collections all on 107th Street in Corona. It’ll be our Armstrong-version of Graceland!
Are there any special exhibits or presentations coming up? How often do you change things around within the museum?
Ricky Riccardi: We usually do two exhibits a year at the Armstrong House. Last year was the 50th anniversary of “What a Wonderful World,” Armstrong’s most popular song. Coincidentally (or not), it became our most popular exhibit. We had planned on closing it in October but left it up through the end of the year and it’s still up at the beginning of 2018. People love the song so much but they don’t know the history so the exhibit uses lots of original artifacts to explain the backstory, how it flopped in the United States when it was first released but also how Louis loved the song and treated it as a tribute to his Corona, Queens neighborhood.
We’re currently looking forward to our next exhibit as this March represents the 75th anniversary of Louis and Lucille Armstrong moving to this home in Corona. We have been digitizing our collections for the past year thanks to a $2.7 million grant from Robert F. Smith’s Fund II Foundation so we have come across dozens of photos of the interior and exterior of the Armstrong House that have never been exhibited publicly so we’re excited to showcase those beginning in March.
House Museum aside, will there be another Armstrong-themed festival in Queens this year? Is there something you worked on in prior years?
Ricky Riccardi: I believe there will be! The Louis Armstrong Wonderful World Festival is actually run by the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College, of which we are a constituent. We’ve had tents at each previous festival and I’ve given indoor lectures at the previous three, so I’m looking forward to doing it again this year. It’s always a wonderful time in Flushing Meadows Corona Park!
The Louis Armstrong House Museum also stages a series of summer concerts in the Armstrongs’ beautiful Japanese-inspired garden. We’re currently in the planning stages but we’ll have details on our “Hot Jazz, Cool Garden” series on our website in the coming months.
Is there any unreleased Louis Armstrong content? Or any potential for new content being discovered?
Ricky Riccardi: YES to both. I’m happy to report that last year, Dot Time Records reached an exclusive arrangement with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation to begin issuing previously unreleased Armstrong performances. I’ve been working closely with Dot Time Producer Jerry Roche to cull some of the best and rarest treasures from our Research Collections. The first two volumes were issued in 2017 — The Standard Oil Sessions and The Nightclubs — and are available on CD and on all streaming platforms, with a vinyl edition of The Standard Oil Sessions released at the end of the year.
Jerry and I are already planning the next two volumes for 2018 and we hope to keep it going for years to come. Goodness knows, there’s enough content, plus there’s new material still being discovered all the time. Just yesterday, the son-in-law of Louis’s longtime pianist and bandleader Luis Russell visited and played some live performances from the 1930s that I had never heard and they blew my mind. There’s so much out there and if I have my way, it will all get issued eventually.
When not busy with the museum, how do you like to spend your free time?
Ricky Riccardi: My favorite thing to do is spend time with my wife Margaret and three daughters, Ella, Melody and Lily. They’re the greatest and I do my best to give them my all as husband and father. At the same time, I don’t know if there’s such a thing as free time anymore. Outside of my duties at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I’ve begun working on my second book about Armstrong’s life from 1929 to 1947. Last semester, I taught a graduate course at Queens College on “Music of Louis Armstrong,” which was incredibly fulfilling. I taught a “Swing University” course on Louis at Jazz at Lincoln Center last year and it looks like I’ll be doing that again in 2018.
I do a lot of side-work for Universal Music Group, co-producing numerous Armstrong digital and CD reissues, including two 4-CD boxed sets due out in February: Pops Is Tops: Complete Verve Studio Albums and Cheek To Cheek: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I co-produced and wrote liner notes for a 9-CD Armstrong box for Mosaic Records in 2014 and they just asked me to spearhead another one, which we hope to begin working on later this month. I also write the liner notes for all the aforementioned Dot Time CDs. And though it’s slowed to a trickle, I still manage to occasionally update the Armstrong blog I started in 2007. I love giving Armstrong talks and lectures and have a few coming up at some libraries around New Jersey and New York. I’m also a jazz pianist and though I don’t play as often as I used to, I still pick up the occasional gig.
Oh, and I should mention that I live in Toms River, New Jersey and work in Flushing, Queens which is a 2 ½-to-3 hour ONE WAY commute, which I do twice a day, four days a week. So I guess “free time” would be spent sleeping on the bus to and from work. But I love all of the above and try my very best to balance my family life and my Armstrong life.
What is the next concert you plan on attending?
Ricky Riccardi: Because I don’t do enough, I also produce a series of jazz concerts at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey. I’m presenting an 80th anniversary tribute to Benny Goodman’s historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert on January 24 with The Midiri Brothers Big Band. And in New York, I often try to see David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland on Wednesday nights and the Buck and a Quarter Quartet at their various gigs, including one on January 11 at the Red Room — where I’ll be sitting in on the second set on piano.
Finally, Ricky, any last words for the kids?
Ricky Riccardi: Yes! Follow your dreams, kids. I know it sounds corny as hell, but look at me. I painted houses for four years — with a master’s degree — and my book was rejected for about two of those years. But I never panicked — though my parents and wife were on the verge at times — slowly and steadily making contacts, writing blogs, establishing a reputation and then after so many years, everything fell into place. I had my dream job and published my dream book by the age of 30, and now at the age of 37, it’s still all a dream as I am truly all Armstrong, all the time. So pick something you love and if you have enough dedication and especially passion about it, you can make a living doing what you dream of, too. Seriously! Don’t roll your eyes at me, kids! Also, listen to Louis Armstrong. He’s the best.Tweet