Louis Armstrong in his den in 1958. In the background: a rug in the guest bathroom at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Credit Charles Graham, via Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Behind his blistering trumpet solos, revolutionary vocal improvising and exuberant stage persona, how did Louis Armstrong see himself? What was it like to be the first pop virtuoso of the recorded era — the man whose earliest releases set the tune for America’s love affair with modern black music, and who went on to become one of history’s most famous entertainers?
Those questions aren’t rhetorical. There’s actually a deep well of resources on hand to help answer them. For his entire adult life, away from the spotlight, Armstrong amassed a huge trove of personal writings, recordings and artifacts. But until this month, you would have had to travel far into central Queens to find them. Now anyone can access them. Thanks to a $3 million grant from the Fund II Foundation — run by Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest African-American — the Louis Armstrong House Museum has digitized the entire collection he left behind and made it available to the public.
Armstrong wrote hundreds of pages of memoir, commentary and jokes throughout his life, and sent thousands of letters. He made collages and scrapbooks by the score. Over the final two decades of his life, he recorded himself to reel-to-reel tapes constantly, capturing everything from casual conversations to the modern music he was listening to.
All told, Armstrong’s is not just one of the most well documented private lives of any American artist. It’s one of the most creatively documented lives, too.
“Posterity drove him to write manuscripts and make tapes and catalog everything,” said Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and a noted Armstrong scholar. “He was just completely aware of his importance and wanting to be in control of his own story.”
And it wasn’t just posterity. The same things that drove him as a performer — faith in unfettered communication, an irreverent approach to the strictures of language, the desire to wrap all of American culture in his embrace — course through his writings, collages and home recordings.
Armstrong had been largely responsible for shaping jazz into the worldly, youth-driven music it became in the 1930s. He emerged as a symbol of racial pride, crossing Tin Pan Alley gentility with street patois, and sometimes singing directly about black frustrations. But as his career went on, his grinning stage persona — an expansion on the minstrel shows and New Orleans cabarets of his youth — fell out of step with most African-American listeners’ tastes. (“I loved the way Louis played trumpet, man, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks,” Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography.)
With jazz’s identity solidifying as an art music in the 1950s, Armstrong became especially unfashionable to the critical establishment. The autumnal hits he scored in the mid-1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World,” seemed only to confirm the media consensus that the times had passed him by.
But these archives contain the tools for a better understanding of Armstrong: as idiosyncratic an artist as any, one whose creative instincts only grew deeper and broader over time.