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Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo by Michael Cogswell

If you want to understand why Louis Armstrong ranks among the most seminal figures in American jazz, you need look no further than Gary Giddins’ slim masterpiece Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (Da Capo). Giddins’ elegant evaluation of the man and his music is the filet mignon of Armstrong biographies. Michael Cogswell’s lighter, fluffier treatise is the dessert.

Cogswell, a professional sax player turned archivist and music historian, was hired in 1991 to catalog the wealth of personal effects-tapes, letters, photographs, scrapbooks-donated to Queens College after Armstrong’s death. Five years later, Cogswell was put in charge of the $1.6 million refurbishment of Armstrong’s modest Queens home, where he lived from 1943 until his death in 1971. In October, the 107th Street house (declared a national historic landmark in 1977) was officially opened as an Armstrong museum. Concurrently, Cogswell’s beautifully appointed Offstage Story was published as the museum’s “official book.” Like so many such keepsakes, it is a warts-removed homage that stops just short of beatification. But Cogswell makes it clear in his introduction that a balanced biographical portrait is not his intent. Instead, he promises, and delivers, an exhaustively thorough tour of the house, the archives and Queens College’s companion “Satchmo Collection,” comprised of thousands of items donated by Armstrong friends and followers.

So detailed is Cogswell’s scrutiny that we learn Swiss Kriss was Satchmo’s favorite laxative and witness his taste for garish foil wallpapers. Such trivialities are, however, offset by detailed accounts of some 650 compilation tapes assembled by Armstrong (a dedicated hi-fi buff who also created customized photo montages for almost all of the reel-to-reel tape boxes), lengthy excerpts from his private papers and over 250 previously unpublished photos. It’s a fan’s book for fans. A sweet concoction that is, nonetheless, deliciously rich and surprisingly filling.

Originally Published