Finding overlooked art in the photographer’s contact sheet
Louis Armstrong archive brings musician’s influence into the modern era
Hari Sreenivasan: As Black History Month draws to a close, we bring you the story of one of the greatest musicians in American history: Louis Armstrong. He left behind massive and varied archives -- all stored in Queens, New York -- and there's a major effort underway to carry his legacy forward to a new generation of artists. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has the story.
Louis Armstrong: one of the most famous and influential musicians of the 20th century. A genius on the trumpet, who also had one of the world's most recognizable voices. But that wasn't all.
Robert O'Meally (Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies): He was the person who codified what we now call jazz. He did, in a certain sense, what Chaucer did for English literature.
Ricky Riccardi (Louis Armstrong House Museum): His improvisations were just light-years ahead of everybody at the time. He had this loose rhythmic feeling that we call swing. And after he, you know, demonstrated how to really approach this music, here comes Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. And anybody who sings that kind of music today, they're doing what Louis Armstrong was doing in the 1920's.
Megan Thompson: Born to a poor family in New Orleans in 1901...Armstrong went on to appear in more than 30 movies, record hundreds of albums and perform thousands of shows for crowds around the world. In 1943, he and his wife Lucille moved into this modest house in the working class New York City neighborhood of corona, queens. Today, the home is perfectly preserved as the Louis Armstrong house Museum. After Armstrong died in 1971, a vast amount of materials were found in his home, what organizers call the largest collection of any jazz musician in the world. 60,000 items - much of it created and collected by Armstrong himself - are stored for now about 4 miles away at Queens College. Robert O'Meally, the director of the Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies, says Armstrong knew his legacy wo uld be important.
Robert O'Meally: Armstrong was an auto-archivist. Almost from the beginning, he seemed to realize that he was Louis Armstrong. And so he was meticulous. And he wanted that his passage through the world was recorded in full.
Kenyon Victor Adams (Louis Armstrong House Museum): The archives are so extensive and so distinctive.
Megan Thompson: Kenyon Victor Adams is the new director of Louis Armstrong House Museum. He's launching an initiative to reignite interest in Armstrong's legacy and make these vast archives more accessible.
Kenyon Victor Adams: This is in no way a dusty legacy. This is a living legacy.
Megan Thompson: The $23 million project includes rehousing the archives in a new 14,000 square-foot performance and educational space across the street from Armstrong's home. And the museum recently digitized everything in its collection and put it all online, so it's all available to anyone, anywhere. Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections, oversaw the project.
Ricky Riccardi: I'm all Armstrong, all the time.
Megan Thompson: Riccardi has also written a book and taught classes on Armstrong, who went by the nicknames Satchmo, Satch and Pops. Riccardi's encyclopedic knowledge of the musician has earned him his own set of nicknames.
Ricky Riccardi: Satchologist.
Megan Thompson: A Satchologist?
Ricky Riccardi: It used to be Satchologist. Rickipedia's kinda taken over.
Megan Thompson: A lot of people know him as "Louie." You call him "Louis."
Ricky Riccardi: He always referred to himself at Louis. And he actually said one time that, "My mother never called me Louie." So to him, that was it. But everybody else, his managers, his musicians, they all called him Louie. But if you call him Louis, Louie, Satchmo, Pops, anything, you know, as long as we're talkin' about him, I'm happy.
Megan Thompson: The archives contain Armstrong treasures like his trumpets.
Ricky Riccardi: We have all of his mouthpieces.
Megan Thompson: There are thousands of photos. And here's an original arrangement of a song Armstrong made a standard....
Louis Armstrong: (Singing) What a wonderful world....
Megan Thompson: Armstrong kept meticulous scrapbooks. And he wrote constantly - letters, stories and two autobiographies. But that wasn't all.
Ricky Riccardi: So something that Louis did in his spare time, that people did not know he was doing
Megan Thompson: Armstrong created hundreds of collages - all held together with Scotch tape. In one he mixed pictures of people important to him, taping a tiny photo of his musical mentor - famed bandleader King Oliver - in the middle of his own head.
Ricky Riccardi: Making the point that he didn't do anything without thinking of King Oliver.
Megan Thompson: He made one collage from a chopped up Christmas card from President Richard Nixon. Another, features materials from his visit with the Pope.
Ricky Riccardi: On the back, he rearranged the sentences so it reads, "Mr. and Mrs. Most Holy Father Louis Armstrong."
Robert O'Meally: The collages are so wonderful to see. But the collages can also give you a new way of listening to the music. He's a collage-maker in sound. He's quoting Tin Pan Alley. He's quoting opera. There's one piece called Dinah, where he plays the hoochie coochie song. It's on film. And in the middle of-- Dinah, he starts to go, (SINGING) "Duh duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh da da."
Megan Thompson: But his music wasn't the only audio archive Armstrong left to the world.
Ricky Riccardi: This is December 1950.
Jack Teagarden: Always ... just like this.
Ricky Riccardi: Teagarden.
Megan Thompson: In 1950 Armstrong's trombonist Jack Teagarden showed him how to use a portable tape recorder.
Jack Teagarden: Then-- then-- to play it back, all you got to do is...
(People talking, trumpet playing)
Ricky Riccardi: Now you're in the room. You're in the dressing room. And from that first tape, he is so comfortable. It's, like, this is gonna be my way of, you know, of documenting my life. And so that goes on for the next 20 years.
Megan Thompson: Over those 20 years Armstrong recorded more than a thousand hours - everything from practicing trumpet to conversations to whatever music he was listening to at the time.
Ricky Riccardi: Perhaps his favorite-- performer, maybe, of all time, was Enrico Caruso, the great opera star of the early 20th century.
Louis Armstrong: Yeah, yeah, Caruso! Yeah! You laid it, my man.
Megan Thompson: Here Armstrong is giving advice to a fan backstage.
Louis Armstrong: So it's best that you don't rush your-- your musical ability, you know?
Louis Armstrong: It took me 37 years to almost learn how to play the trumpet. And you never learn it completely.
Megan Thompson: Armstrong also loved telling jokes.
Louis Armstrong: Well, it-- it-- Mary had a little bear. And the bear was mighty fine. And-- every-- everywhere-- Mary went, you-- you see her bare behind.
Megan Thompson: His wife Lucille appears often in the recordings. In one, the recorder was running for a while before she realized it.
Lucille Armstrong: Now, what the s***? You got that f*****' thing on? Hey.
Louis Armstrong: You go on and--
Lucille Armstrong: Turn your tape recorder off. Don't be fluffin' me off--
Louis Armstrong: I swear, I got thousands of tapes--
Lucille Armstrong: I wouldn't give a s*** about your thousands of tapes. You can come with them tomorrow. Turn your tape off. In fact, er-- erase off some of that s***.
Louis Armstrong: Golly, you-- you gettin' nervous there.
Lucille Armstrong: I ain't gettin' nervous. But you ain't-- you know, you-- you ain't got no better sense--
Louis Armstrong: That's for posterities.
Lucille Armstrong: Posterity my ass!
Megan Thompson:: While Armstrong was known for his over-the-top ebullience and huge smiles ... he faced the racism every African American performer faced. These are headlines in a scrapbook documenting his first European tour in 1932.
Ricky Riccardi: "Storm over Negro trumpeter," is one article. But it says a lot about Armstrong that he would save all the stuff, knowing that this was all part of the story.
Megan Thompson: Towards the end of his career, Armstrong's lighthearted, comedic performances prompted some to call him an uncle tom. But, Robert O'Meally says, behind the facade was a stubborn man standing up to racism.
Robert O'Meally: They would tell him, "You cannot bring your integrated band to the theater." And he'd say, "Cancel. This is my band. They go wherever I go. And that kind of daring must be put together with the comic roles that he played. And we have to realize that people are layered and fractured and-- and very, very complicated.
Megan Thompson: In one recording, Armstrong vents about a young assistant on a movie set who spoke to him disrespectfully - calling Armstrong by a nickname and joking about giving his part to someone else.
Louis Armstrong: "Why you hand me that s***? 'Cause I'm colored?" All the bigwigs was out there, too. And I met them. "Shove your picture up your ass," I told 'em.
Megan Thompson: In 1957, during an newspaper interview in North Dakota, Armstrong lashed out publicly, using expletives to describe Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who had blocked the integration of Little Rock's Central High School. Armstrong said of President Eisenhower, who was slow to intervene, the he was "two-faced" and had "no guts". His comments became big news and affected his career.
Robert O'Meally: At that moment it took such courage. And not all performers stood with him. And he said, "You know, now we should stay with me, brothers and sisters. 'Cause I'm not backin' down." And I-- I think it, he lost jobs all over the country. The record sales sank. He took the principled stand. It was very daring.
Ricky Riccardi: This one's a little different. "Last tape recorded by Pops. 7/5/71." And he died in his sleep in the early hours of 7/6/71. That is Lucille Armstrong's handwriting. He doesn't speak on it. There's no big famously last words or anything. But all the music he listened to the night before he died was his own. And the very last track on that album is April in Paris. And April in Paris ended. And the rest of the tape was silence.
Robert O'Meally: The biggest message in the music is that we as a group can represent what it means for humanity to play well together, to improvise together, to recognize that the blues are fallin' down like rain, but we're gonna have a good time anyway. We - the trouble is right around the corner. Somehow we're gonna-- we're gonna persevere. And we're gonna do it with a big smile and with a Louis Armstrong sense a swing.
Louis Armstrong: Well, folks, that was my life. And I enjoyed all of it. Yes, I did.