Ricky Riccardi: Armstrong Reconsidered
Author of new book on Louis Armstrong’s later years talks about his obsession with the trumpeter’s legacy
Most jazz authors begin their careers writing pieces for newspapers or magazines (or even blogs) and then eventually get around to doing a book after several years in the journalistic trenches. Ricky Riccardi is very much an exception to that rule. Riccardi studied the life and music of Louis Armstrong in both college and graduate school and he eventually turned all that research into an engaging book about the legendary trumpeter’s later years, which Riccardi believes have often been overlooked or even maligned. What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years has just been published by Pantheon Books.
Riccardi spoke with JazzTimes about his unique path to book authorship and about his passion for the life and music of Louis Armstrong.
JazzTimes: What was the first piece you wrote professionally?
Riccardi: You could almost say the book. I’ve been writing about jazz for about a decade from an amateur level. I started off at a college newspaper in Toms River New Jersey, my hometown, at the first college I went to, Ocean County College. I was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper there. And being the editor-in-chief, I decided to give myself a jazz column and the very first jazz column I ever wrote was on Louis Armstrong’s later years back in 2000. And it actually won me an award in the Jersey Press Association Collegiate competition award and I thought, “I’m onto something.” Besides that and starting my own blog [The World of Louis Armstrong] in 2007, I’ve been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.
How did you end up at the Louis Armstrong House as an archivist there?
I began in October 2009 as the project archivist. I was hired on a two year grant. First I had to catalogue Jack Bradley’s collection—the world’s foremost private collector of all things Armstrong. We began acquiring his collection in 2005. It took one trip a year to Jack’s house in Cape Cod over six years to bring everything to the museum. I was hired in 2009 to process that, catalogue that and also enter in all the data from all the other collections here into an online software program called “Path Perfect.” This past December we recently launched an online catalogue of some of our materials from some of our collection. It’s still an ongoing process. That is my day job.
Louis Armstrong has been covered by so many writers already. Why did you decide to do this book on his later years?
The seeds for this book were actually planted the first time I listened to Louis Armstrong’s music. I was 15 years old—this was 1995. I was a freshman in high school and saw the movie, The Glenn Miller Story and when Louis Armstrong came on and did “Basin Street Blues,” I took one look and said, “This guy is fantastic.” I went down to my local library and checked out a Columbia compilation on cassette back then called, Sixteen Most Requested Songs with liner notes by George Avakian. It was a compilation of Louis Armstrong’s 1950’s Columbia records—Mack the Knife, Satchmo Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy. And later in time when I got to track 14—“St. Louis Blues”—and something in my mind shifted and I thought, “I need every note this man ever recorded.” Naturally I started get the Hot Five and the Hot Seven recordings but every time I picked up a book or read the liner notes, everyone seemed to disparage the later years, when he went commercial … that he went show biz or was an Uncle Tom …and that these early recordings showed the real artist and the genius. I kept saying, well “No, it’s not quite true.”
Gary Giddins did a great job planting the seed for that in the ‘80s and Dan Morgenstern did an unbelievable job. His liner notes were very influential for me. But early on, I knew this was story that needed to be told. I was in the honors program at Ocean County College and I needed to write a research paper to graduate. I ended up writing 125 pages on Louis Armstrong and his later years. And then I went to Rutgers for my master’s where I ended up studying with Lewis Porter, Henry Martin and John Howland. I wrote my thesis there—350 pages on Louis Armstrong’s later years. So this book is a long time coming. There is a lack of fundamental knowledge about this period of Armstrong’s life.
This [time period] is the most taxing time of his life. It’s the period of his greatest popularity, the period when he’s the most misunderstood and some of the previous biographies, such as James Lincoln Collier’s or Laurence Bergreen’s books, once they [the authors] hit the year 1947, they hit the fast forward button and zoom through the last 25 years of Armstrong’s life, all the while just kind of rolling their eyes and talking about “Hello Dolly” and hitting the same notes: “What a Wonderful World,” Little Rock and then he died…the end. I knew there was a much deeper story there and I always wanted to tell it.
A central thesis of the book is that Louis Armstrong was often maligned for his music and politics. Has the perception of him changed in last few years?
It’s been changing. Louis died in 1971. He had lost almost his entire black audience and many young jazz fans all but ignored him. And the books that came out—the writings on Louis in the ‘70’s and especially early ‘80s—carried on about Louis as the poor servant of Joe Glaser, smiling all the time while he lost his jazz chops, and was too commercial minded and all this stuff. Gary Giddins was the first one to start really start changing people’s minds and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gary was the first person to have access to Louis’ private writings and his private tape recordings. This was before there was a Louis Armstrong Archive. Gary got to actually go to Louis’ house and use that material.
Once the Armstrong Archive opened up in 1994, that’s when you start to see the writings start changing because Louis’ own words start telling the story. I really think that deep down, Louis was aware of his importance and he was aware of his opinions on things and that’s why he wrote so much. He wrote so many manuscripts and he always kept that reel-to-reel tape recorder going. He always said he was doing it for posterity and after he died, his wife Lucille said that Louis always told her, “I made these tapes, be careful with them, don’t let anyone take them, watch these tapes, they’re going to be very valuable one day.” It’s on these tapes where you finally get to hear Louis’ side of the story. Slowly, through the years, these things have been coming out. Thomas Brothers did a book on Louis Armstrong’s private writings, Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words, which is essential. Terry Teachout’s book [Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong] was the first one to really use some of the tapes and show that the offstage Louis. While he was still a very happy man, he was very complex and he had feelings about racism that were really never before explored. But they’re all on tape and the more that comes out, the more that perceptions seem to be changing.
Although you’re a historian and researcher, the book is not written in an academic tone. Was this a conscious decision in order to make the book and its message more accessible to a wider audience?
Yes, it’s definitely tied into the way I write. When I was studying at Rutgers we did a lot of work with academic journals and stuff like that and that way of writing always bored me to tears. I always preferred a more conversational style. When all of these ideas about Louis Armstrong were crowding my brain, I started a blog in 2007 and that blog, with no editor looking over my shoulder, allowed me to be my own self. To this day when I write the blog, I always try to make it conversational. I try to make silly jokes and really try to make it more accessible.
I realized that Louis Armstrong is such a major figure. Forty years after he died, everybody knows who he is. Here at the Louis Armstrong House, we’re getting 12,000 visitors a year from all over the world. So I didn’t want to write a book just for the hard-core jazz fan, with lots of transcriptions and that kind of stuff. I thought there was a story here and that whether you were the world’s biggest Armstrong buff or just knew him from “A Wonderful World,” you would find something of interest in this book.
As an Armstrong scholar, it would seem that you know just about everything about him. In the course of your research, did you learn anything about Armstrong that surprised you?
Really just the main surprises came from the private tapes—hearing Louis talk about his manager Joe Glaser who he really did worship and had such a deep friendship with. I found this amazing tape where Louis basically threatened to retire unless Glaser told authorities to allow Louis to smoke marijuana without getting in trouble. When I found that tape, it just melted my mind because I had been hearing these stories about Louis and Glaser—that Louis was subservient and that Glaser cracked the whip. Then when you listen to the tape and you hear how stern Louis is, you think, “Wait a minute, it’s the other way around: Louis is the one in charge.” He knew that Glaser couldn’t survive without him so he was going to make his demands. It’s things like that, stories about Louis encountering racism and even his use of language which could be very very salty off stage. Listening to tapes really made him come to life as someone behind the smile on the stage. I talked to folks who knew him including Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley and the musicians who played with him in the All Stars. But it wasn’t until I spent time with the tapes that the surprises really came flying at me—one after another. This was a man who was a very very deep, complex and remarkable man.
Do you see Louis Armstrong as a politically active and aware figure?
He definitely was, but he knew that the biggest public impact he could make was through his music. He really believed in leading by example. He knew that he was a black man, born poor, in the United States and he knew what he overcame. He knew that he brought goodwill around the world through his music and when people would press him about political issues, he tended to downplay it because he didn’t want to alienate one side or the other. But when he saw injustice, that’s when he really blew his top and he couldn’t contain it over Little Rock was the major occasion. But in 1965 with the marches on Selma, Louis was in Denmark and reporters asked him about it while he was over there. And he talked about how he knows why his reputation was suffering back then because he wasn’t taking part in the marches and that he was afraid.
Right on the eve of a major tour of the Iron Curtain countries, he gets to these countries and they are waiting for him to say more about race relations. Here he is, he’s already proved he has his opinions but in press conferences he starts backtracking—“Oh, I have fans everywhere, everyone’s been very nice to me.” But meanwhile, at the same time, during the same tour, he starts playing “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue”—a song he hadn’t played with any regularity in years. So that’s how you knew he had survived that. He couldn’t be as outspoken as some of the younger musicians were. So he did it through his music. He got his message across and he brought great jazz to everywhere he went.
Certainly some artists did step up and support the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists. Harry Belafonte, Odetta and Sammy Davis come to mind. Does a part of you wish that Armstrong had done more?
He did not want to be on the end of that violence, as he said himself. He donated to the NAACP, he donated to all the causes, he was a follower of Martin Luther King, he supported him. As to him doing more, the truth is that he came up so early that he did more just by surviving. I could list the accomplishments, but what he did he did it without fanfare. In 1967, he did an interview with Larry King where he kind of bragged about it for the first time. He said, “I was the first black entertainer to crack the white hotels.” He had it in his contract that he wouldn’t play anywhere where he couldn’t stay. That’s a major thing. He was the first black entertainer to have nationally-sponsored broadcasts with the “Fleishmann’s Yeast Show.” He broke down so many barriers but he did it without holding press conferences. It all goes back to the great Lester Bowie quote, where Bowie referred to Louis Armstrong as a true revolutionary. A normal revolutionary is waving in the streets and the cops just arrest him, but a true revolutionary is the guy who smiled and put a little poison in his coffee. I think Louis would have agreed to that 100%.
Louis talks about Josephine Baker. She came back to America in 1951 and she played an engagement that was supposed to be in front of a segregated audience. So she went to the black press and she raised a whole furor: “I’m not playing unless I can get my black fans there.” And the press covered her and then she went back to Europe and that was the end. And she got some criticism from the black press—“What does she think she’s doing, coming over here and stirring up things?” And there's a private tape where Louis talks about this moment and gets very upset about her and says: "If she had talent, she wouldn't raise no hell at all. She wouldn't have to open her mouth. Her ability would speak for itself.” So I think that’s really where Louis came from. He did so many things for civil rights. He broke down so many barriers for musicians who came after him, but because he didn’t go around beating his chest about it, people seemed to forget about it. They didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But hopefully, now that that story is coming out, perceptions will start to change.
Was there any material you left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
My cutting room floor is still difficult to navigate. I mentioned my thesis, which was 350 pages, but it ended in 1961 and Louis died in 1971. My mentor, Lewis Porter, had to calm me down on my thesis, telling me to save it for the book. So I graduated from Rutgers in 2005, but I had to finish the story and during 2005, 2006 and 2007 I kept writing, I kept researching, I kept adding. I started coming out here to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, listening to the tapes—adding and adding and adding. And finally, in 2008 my agent Tony Outhwaite called me and said, “Hey, we have a book deal with Pantheon.” I said, “That’s wonderful” And he said, “It should be maybe 100,000 words.” I went back to my computer and I opened up my Microsoft word document and I was at 210,000 words and I said, “Oh boy, I’m going to have to do some editing.” But thankfully, I really feel that it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
If you ever want a laugh, go to the Institute of Jazz Studies where my thesis is on the shelf. It’s so big, it takes up two binders and I’m telling you, it’s the most boring thing you’ve ever read in your life. It’s full of details like, “Then Louis played here … then he made a recording …” I covered everything in it. When I began working with my editor at Pantheon, Erroll McDonald, to edit my work down for the book, I realized that half my research was there. But then it became cathartic and I’m so proud of what’s left in there. I knew what’s missing and the good news is I still have the blog so I can still write about in more detail there. But this is a book that I hope has appeal for a wide audience. I’m perfectly fine with the length with the book. Yes, I didn’t get to cover every movie or every recording date, but that’s not the final word. Everything that’s there is important and does tell the story.
Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?
Dan Morgenstern was my man, still is and I’m proud to call him a friend now. His writings, especially the liner notes for Louis Armstrong’s California Concerts and Louis Armstrong’s Chicago Concert really set me on the path. It seemed like everyone was knocking the All Star period, but Dan had the other slant and he helped point me in the right direction. Gary Giddins’ book Satchmo was a huge huge influence and one of the first Armstrong books I read. Gary got it also. So these two are the big ones, but I went through all the major figures: Nat Hentoff naturally, Whitney Balliett. I ate it all up.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
I pretty much live in the blogging universe these days. I always start off with Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives. Michael and I almost share a heartbeat when it comes to music—he really gets it and shares such great videos. Also Marc Meyers’s Jazz Wax and Doug Ramsey. Chris Albertson has a great blog. Terry Teachout and Will Friedwald. These are my guys and I check them out as much as I can.
What non-fiction or biographies outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?
The other books I tend to go towards are sports books and entertainment books. I’m a movie buff and I’m a die-hard New York Yankee fan. I’m a big baseball fan. Recently I read Jan Leavy’s Mickey Mantle biography and that was pretty great. I didn’t get around to the Willie Mays biography—that and the Hank Aaron bio are on my bookshelf. And boxing books. I think I’m one of the ten remaining boxing fans in America.
What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?
I’m a big supporter of print media. I still like to read newspapers and I still like magazines. I read JazzTimes, for example. I like holding things in my hand and I take a bus to work and I like bringing things to read. At the same time, when I’m on the bus and I look around, I see everyone sitting around with Kindles and iPads, so, yes, I think the writing is on the wall. Mentioning blogs, I can attribute a lot of things that have happened in my life to me starting the Armstrong blog—meeting people from around the world. I never got paid a dime for it but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. So I sincerely hope that there's a future for the print media, but nowadays, because every person in the world can fire up a blog, I don't know what the future brings. I check my morning round-up of blogs and it's great, I feel up to date. It’s thriving and it’s living and it’s out there. Michael Steinman is a college professor so it’s a labor of love. My Armstrong blog is a labor of love for me which I would do on the side. Between college with a Master’s degree and working here at the Armstrong House museum, I helped my father as a painting contractor. I would paint by day and blog by night. So I don’t think blogging is putting food on anybody’s table. But they’re getting music out there—which I think is great for the musicians.
What’s next as far as another book project?
I have a million ideas. We’ll see what the reaction is to this book. Naturally, if there’s enough positive reaction, I would love to do Armstrong again, maybe take it back to the middle years, maybe 1929 through 1947, some of his big band period. Or a book about the private tapes. I’ve listened to so many of them to get information for this book but there is so much on there—Louis talking about his upbringing and other stories that might make a fascinating book.
The other dream biography I’ve always wanted to do is Slim Gaillard. I’ve actually been in contact with his family members and they would love to see a book written about him. I’ve acquired a fair amount of research and videos in just about everything he’s ever recorded. I think that book would be a ball to write. I’ve just got to see if these days in the publishing industry if anyone would want to take a chance on it. He was from another planet and his story is very very funny, very crazy, filled with all of these tall tales but at the same time, he had major major records, which were covered by everybody. He had recordings with Charlie Parker, he was mentioned by Jack Kerouac and his last record before he died in 1991 was a bona fide rap record. He kind of had this chameleon career. He was just so goofy and yet he always brought the best people to his party. For example, he had Ben Webster on his record dates or Milt Jackson played drums for one record date and there was a broadcast from Birdland with Art Blakey on drums. He was very much in the world but also sort of a comic figure. But he could play guitar, he was a good singer and piano player, and he wrote these weird songs. He was a very bizarre man but his music was so much fun. I can’t think of anyone else who could write a song about potato chips which could stick in your head for days.