‘Wonder” is the word that most comes to mind when considering the life and work of Louis Armstrong. It’s not just that one of his last hit songs was “What a Wonderful World,” which, along with “Hello, Dolly,” vied with the Beatles for the top spot on the pop charts during the 1960s and had a recent resurgence on the soundtrack of Robin Williams’s film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Armstrong’s whole life was a source of wonder, a remarkable American rags-to-riches story of a fatherless boy, raised in a ramshackle, crowded bungalow with no indoor plumbing in New Orleans, who rose to become not only America’s first jazz star but a renowned entertainer, movie star and international luminary, known to many as “Ambassador Satch.” When Armstrong died in 1971, a month shy of his 70th birthday, his fame was so great that his widow, Lucille, received a condolence letter from a fan in New Zealand that was simply addressed to “Mrs. Satchmo, Queens, N.Y., America.”
That lovely anecdote can be found in Michael Cogswell’s “Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo” (Collectors Press), a handsome new book containing more than 300 hitherto unreleased photographs from Armstrong’s collection and 35,000 words of illuminating text. Its publication coincides with the opening of the Armstrong House National Historic Museum in Corona, Queens (www.satchmo.net). For his book, Cogswell, the museum director and a jazz musician, has selected a rich and varied array of Armstrong memorabilia that should delight Armstrong fans and cultural historians alike. They include some of Armstrong’s remarkable collages, stills from his movie and stage performances, and excerpts from unpublished parts of his autobiography and the thousands of letters the fifth-grade dropout wrote with deep feeling, if memorable syntax.
Armstrong bought his first horn with the help of a loan from the Karnofskys, a Jewish immigrant family that operated a junk-collection business in New Orleans and for whom young Armstrong sometimes worked. Cogswell also devotes some thoughtful passages to Armstrong’s close relationship with the tough-minded Joe Glaser, the son of a prominent Chicago physician who built his Associated Booking Corporation into a major music promotion business. For the last 35 years of Armstrong’s career, Glaser was his manager, operating on the trust of a handshake instead of a contract. Armstrong, nominally raised a Baptist, wore a Star of David, a gift from Glaser, and his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson Armstrong, also wore a star, although she was Catholic — probably a gift from Armstrong. After Armstrong’s death, Lucille underwrote a Louis Armstrong Jazz Studies scholarship at Brandeis University.
One of the many poignant photos in the book shows a wheelchair-bound Armstrong late in his life, posing with his personal physician, a nurse and the president of Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. The doctors wanted Armstrong to cut down the pace of his world travels, but like most great performers, he couldn’t really slow down. He lived for his art, and audiences lived to hear him because he had the remarkable ability to make people feel good. Armstrong’s charisma broke down political boundaries. During the Congolese civil war in 1960, bitter rivals Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Mobutu jointly chaperoned him out of danger to the airport. While playing a series of gigs in East Berlin, Armstrong and his hungry band drove through Checkpoint Charlie every night for food in West Berlin. They didn’t have a pass, but the guards waved them through shouting, “Satchmo!”
That Armstrong chose to make his last home in an unpretentious Corona neighborhood speaks volumes about his down-to-earth simplicity. Cogswell’s book and the newly opened museum make that point and many more about this remarkable American. After a day of ceremonies with music on October 15, the house and historic museum officially opens October 16 and will be open every day but Monday.
Lee Lowenfish is a freelance writer and history teacher, living in New York City.