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Louis Armstrong’s Life in Letters, Music and Art

Step inside the mind of one of America’s great virtuosos, thanks to a vast archive of his personal writings, home recordings and artistic collages.

By Giovanni Russonello

Photographs by Nathan Bajar

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.

One of Armstrong’s trumpets. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

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’s home office features a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Armstrong’s home office features a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett. CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

The Armstrongs in their den. Credit via Louis Armstrong Archive
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.
A Christmas card from Richard Nixon became a collaged cover for an Armstrong recording. In the background: the wall of the Armstrongs’ living room. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

In part, we see a man attuned to race and politics, who took his role seriously as a global ambassador for American culture and kept a close eye on the achievements of fellow African-Americans. When he spoke out against school segregation in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, he surprised the nation. Some activists said it was too little, too late. The archive, however, shows that he considered it both a proud moment in his career and wholly of a piece with his life up to that point. In the collection is a telegram he wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower on the day Eisenhower announced he would be sending Army troops into Little Rock, urging him “to take those little Negro children personally into Central High School along with your marvelous troops.”

And as solicitous as he was, Armstrong was unwilling to let critical judgments define him. He kept a close eye on reviews, but he wrote acerbically about music critics and sometimes taped his interviews with them — perhaps for evidence, in case they misreported something. On one tape, from 1959, he barks at a journalist after being asked about changes afoot in jazz. “I just live what I play, and I can’t vouch for the other fellow. As long as I feel and hit the notes and I’ve got my own audience, then no critic in the world can tell me how I should play my horn,” he says.

A few of Armstrong’s handmade scrapbooks. In the background: the wall of the musician’s Queens den.Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

The Royal Theater Coal Story

Armstrong tells his story about buying coal for a poor black neighborhood when he played the Royal Theater in Baltimore in 1931.

Raised in New Orleans, Armstrong came to fame in his early 20s after joining King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago; his early recordings as a leader, with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, established jazz as a soloist’s music, and made him one of the first pop musicians of the radio era. By the 1940s and ’50s he was regularly included on lists of the most admired Americans.Starting in his 20s, Armstrong frequently clipped newspaper articles about himself and bundled them into scrapbooks. The books began as a tool to convince club owners of his legitimacy, but they turned into a historical record. The dozens of scrapbook binders contained in the archive are a window into his self-image as a celebrity: Armstrong looking at us looking at him.
Armstrong with a teenage trumpeter in a Mexico City dressing room in 1968. In the background: the wallpaper in his hall closet.Credit via Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Armstrong began his career as an idol to many African-Americans. Watch the well-circulated video clip of him performing in Copenhagen in 1933 — bountiful and aggressive as he scats over “Dinah,” then carves his way through “Tiger Rag” with a sweltering trumpet solo — and you’ll get why. But as time wore on, many younger people, particularly musicians of the bebop generation, expressed misgivings about his genuflecting stage persona.
Armstrong’s scrapbooks make it clear that he kept a close eye on how he was perceived, as an artist and as a black statesman. When he traveled to Baltimore in the winter of 1931, he donated 300 bags of coal to residents of a needy black neighborhood, and privately saved the news clipping from The Baltimore Afro-American. When his band was arrested in Arkansas simply for traveling in the same bus as its white manager, he saved the article reporting it.
And when a blatantly racist British critic referred to him as “Mr. Ugly” the following year (“He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla,” the article read), Armstrong kept a copy of that too. Reading what arts journalism was like in the late ’20s and ’30s, it becomes obvious how narrow the berth was for a public figure like Armstrong to emerge onto the national stage.
Pages showcasing Armstrong’s unusual notation and script.CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

Armstrong Sums Up His Life

Recorded less than a year before he died.Armstrong wrote constantly — mostly letters and short stories about his life, but also in the form of limericks and pages-long jokes.  He wrote in a galloping, oddly punctuated style, treating literature almost as an outsider art. Commas turned into apostrophes; jive talk collided with standard English; words were underlined all over. His musical originality is matched on the page.
When Armstrong joined King Oliver’s famed band, he brought along a typewriter. By 1936, when he was in his mid-30s, he had already published an autobiography. Over the course of his career he wrote more than 10,000 letters to fans, hundreds of pages of personal memoirs and enough lengthy jokes to fill an entire book.In 1969 and ’70, with his health failing, Armstrong set about writing a long essay about his relationship with the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. When he was 7, he worked as a servant in their house, and they recognized his musical talent early, advancing him a small amount of money to buy his first cornet.

Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
In this essay, which stretches on for 77 pages, Armstrong enshrines a number of other elements of his personal mythology. He reports his birthday as July 4, 1900, an apocryphal but symbolic date he was fond of using. And he describes the importance of the Storyville neighborhood where he was raised, and where much of early jazz was developed.Just months after he wrote this piece, he died in his sleep at age 69. This story would be collected in a posthumous book, “Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words,” that featured essays from across his career, many of which are included in the Armstrong archive in their original, handwritten form.

Armstrong’s collage of Jackie Robinson images.CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

Armstrong on Making Collages

One of the rare times he talked about his hobby.
Armstrong’s creative hobbies outside writing were less easily wrangled for posterity or publication. One example: the hundreds of collages that he made over the course of his life, cutting out and combining photographs, illustrations and text.

Starting in the early 1950s, few pieces of paper were safe from the blade of Armstrong’s scissors: magazines, risqué photographs, even a Christmas card from Richard Nixon wound up cut and collaged. Most of the time, he taped his collages onto reel-to-reel tape boxes; they were purely decorative. Elsewhere, he turned larger pieces of paper into what amounted to a personal hall of fame.

In one such collage, he crammed a page with almost a dozen photos of Jackie Robinson. On another, Duke Ellington and Kermit Parker, the first black man to run for governor as a Democrat in Louisiana, gaze toward each other from across the page.And on the collage above, a photograph of King Oliver is pasted inside an image of Armstrong’s head, as if to make clear how much Armstrong felt he owed to Oliver. To their left are two other trumpeters: Bix Beiderbecke, a prominent jazz star of the 1920s, and Bunny Berigan, who drew heavily from Armstrong’s influence, both as a trumpeter and a vocalist. Other musicians pictured include Duke Ellington, the R&B vocalist Ruth Brown, and Big Sid Catlett, an influential early drummer who played with Armstrong’s big band at the height of its popularity.

In a far corner of the image, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been president around the time when most of these musicians were stars, looks on.

Armstrong in one of his most beloved rooms in Feb. 1971. In the background: the bathroom today.Creditvia Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Armstrong in one of his most beloved rooms in Feb. 1971. In the background: the bathroom today.Creditvia Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

At Home in Corona

With Lucille Armstrong in the background.

When Armstrong died in 1971, his wife, Lucille, ensured that the house they shared in Corona, Queens — the place where he recorded his tapes, made collages and wrote his manifold letters and notes — remained exactly as he had left it.At first, Armstrong didn’t want the house. But Lucille bought it in 1943, the year after they married, while he was on a lengthy tour. He eventually fell in love with the narrow two-story brick home, and with the working-class block into which it was tucked. Armstrong — whose four marriages never resulted in a child — proudly became an avuncular presence on the block, and bragged in a 1971 manuscript that he had watched three generations grow up around him. Years later, when Lucille eventually wanted to upgrade, he insisted they stay. So she made improvements. The ornate, Fifth Avenue-rate bathroom is a prime example. And the “Throne,” as Armstrong called it in his writing, was of prime import.
Armstrong endorsed the herbal laxative Swiss Krissly with his own slogan. In the background: a staircase in his Queens home.Creditvia Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Armstrong took health and diet very seriously, partly because of having been raised by a single mother who focused, for lack of a doctor, on keeping her children healthy with natural remedies. After Lucille introduced him to Swiss Kriss, an herbal laxative, he became a zealous proponent and offered his endorsement for free. The couple wrote a diet plan that called for regular consumption of Swiss Kriss, and they circulated it among friends and fans along with a comical photo of Armstrong seated on his decked-out Queens toilet, with his “Satchmo-Slogan” printed below: “Leave it All Behind Ya.”

Armstrong was fanatical about his recordings, capturing everything from music to conversations documented with meticulous track lists.Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Listening to Caruso

Armstrong would often narrate his eclectic playlists.
Starting in December 1950, Armstrong used a tape recorder to capture casual conversations, ambient road hangouts, interviews with journalists, radio broadcasts he liked and more. Most often, though, he would simply record his shellac and vinyl discs to tape, consolidating the music and making it easier to carry. He kept careful documentation of the track lists, and together the tapes and their accompanying lists provide a revealing glimpse into his broad music tastes.Ever the careful documenter, Armstrong wrote out a playlist anytime he recorded music to tape — whether it was a recording of his own concert, a dub of an entire album or a more piecemeal mixtape.The range of his listening is striking. He was as likely to listen to the Beatles as he was to Rachmaninoff. On one playlist, the old vaudeville singer Al Jolson and Miles Davis butt up against each other. “The man was obsessed with all kinds of music,” Riccardi said. “Anywhere he’d go — if he’d go to South America, he’d bring back South-American records. If he went to Africa, he’d bring back African records. He’d go to record stores everywhere.”
Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

On a disc marked “Reel 24,” he is listening mostly to the bebop musicians that had succeeded him in the jazz spotlight of the 1940s and ’50s. On the audio of the tape itself, you can hear him announcing the tunes like a radio D.J.After that tape plays, Armstrong introduces another: a bootleg recording of a jam session at Minton’s, the venue where bebop was born. After he plays it, he expresses approval. “Cats jumpin’, man,” he says, apparently unperturbed by the beboppers’ sometimes-ambivalent relationship to his own legacy. Later on, he jumps to a track of his own, “Among My Souvenirs.” In the handwritten playlist, Armstrong closely notates each turn in the tape, including the moment when he pauses to mention the children playing outside.These are the children that Armstrong said he was thinking of when he sang his most famous song, “What a Wonderful World.” Here we have their very voices, documented for all time.
One of Armstrong’s recording reels, with a collaged cover. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Produced by Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.