Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo

Article excerpt

Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo. By Michael Cogswcll. Portland, OR: Collector's Press, 2003. [192 p. ISBN 1-888054-81-6. $39.95.] Illustrations, index.

Although Louis Armstrong is a familiar figure whose music is distinguished for both its innovation and broad appeal, most admirers are probably not aware that the trumpeter, singer, and bandleader was also "a delightfully eccentric pack rat" (p. 8). Throughout the years, and particularly during the three decades before his death in 1971, Armstrong amassed a sizeable assortment of material relating to his career and personal relationships that, as presented by Michael Cogswell in Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo, reveals aspects of Armstrong's interests, creativity, and day-today life that heretofore have been largely unexplored. As director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, Cogswell has an unmatched intimacy with Armstrong's personal effects, and in this beautifully illustrated survey of those collections, he combines the thorough description of an archivist with the affable enthusiasm of a fen, detailing the collections' treasures and inviting further consideration of Armstrong's life and music.

Under the administration of Queens College, the Louis Armstrong House and Archives consists of the house in Queens, New York, where Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, resided for many years, and the Louis Armstrong Archives, a division of Queens College Libraries that holds items owned by Armstrong and a growing collection of newly acquired Armstrong memorabilia. Although the house and most other artifacts have been maintained by Queens College since 1986, the bulk of the collections remained unprocessed until Cogswell's appointment in 1991. In 1994, the Louis Armstrong Archives became available to researchers (p. 65), and, after much planning and renovation, the House, designated a New York City and a National Historic Landmark, opened to the public in 2003 as a historic house museum (pp. 51,53).

Though the first chapter, "Louis's Life and Music," offers a brief biographical sketch, the book serves chiefly as an exhibition catalog of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, featuring examples and discussion of "the most intriguing and revealing items" in the collections (p. 9). Most notable are hundreds of vividly reproduced photographs of Armstrong, alone and with family, friends, and bandmates. While some of these images have appeared previously, in biographies such as Gary Giddins's Satchmo (New York: Doubleday, 1988) for example, many illustrations are published here for the first time. In addition to the photographs from the collections, Cogswell draws on the Archives' holdings of manuscripts and private recordings to supplement his commentary, quoting Armstrong's own clever, colorful words from autobiographical essays, correspondence, and home-recorded tapes. In an informal tone, Cogswell conveys his close knowledge of the collections while presenting a pleasant portrait of the musician, but the words of Armstrong himself, incorporated throughout the text, are the most effective in characterizing Armstrong's perspective, his inventive imagination, and playful sense of humor. Whether telling about a meal at his favorite Chinese restaurant (p. 34), bragging about his two Schnauzers (p. 174), or expressing gratitude for the happiness and good fortunes he enjoyed (p. 186), Armstrong portrays his offstage life vibrantly, and Cogswell capitalizes on how well these often amusing, sometimes touching documents capture Armstrong's unconventionally articulate voice.

Even though Cogswell never met Louis Armstrong (p. 11), his work in organizing, cataloging, and preserving the materials has provided him with a rich understanding of Armstrong's life out of the public eye. In discussing the history and holdings of the House and Archives, Cogswell often goes beyond simple description and considers how the artifacts reflect Armstrong's personality. …