13 Year Anniversary, That's My Home, Heart Full of Rhythm (and Other Dispatches From a Pandemic)
13 years ago today, I finished a day of painting houses outside in the sweltering heat, came home, kissed my wife hello, plopped down and wrote my very first blog, I was full of ideas about Louis Armstrong but with a book proposal routinely getting rejected and stuck painting houses for a living (armed with a master's degree), I figured a blog was the way to go in those days just before social media exploded.
To this day, it remains one of the best decisions I've ever made. This blog opened the doors for everything that has followed in this career of mine, somehow making a living through Louis Armstrong.
I've managed to publish 732 entries in those 13 years but there's always been an up-and-down nature to the regularity of it all, especially this year, which I don't think I need to say, has been, well, different than most. This blog was my baby from 2007 until late 2018 and then I burnt out, swamped by daily duties as Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, plus the writing of my upcoming book, teaching, lecturing, posting on social media, producing Armstrong reissues and of course, spending quality time with my wife and three daughters (and now, three dogs).
And then 2020 began and in a fit of inspiration, I launched the "Six Minutes With Satch" series, covering two sides a day, five posts a week, publishing 59 posts in the first 3 1/2 months of the year. (Number of posts in 2019? 1.) It was a ball but I knew I couldn't keep it up so I quit after the 1934 Paris sections, deep in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic.Ever since then, I've arguably been busier than ever; my 11-year-old daughter Ella snapped this photo to commemorate how I've spent about half of each day since the middle of March:
Why was I suddenly so busy even though work was shut down and my epic daily commute was wiped out? One reason was I began teaching my Queens College Music of Louis Armstrong course remotely, which was a lot of work (all of my listening and reading assignments online can be found here if you're still interested).
But the main reason the blog was put back into semi-retirement was because of the start of a brand new Armstrong-related venture, "That's My Home."
Quick backstory: when the pandemic hit and the Armstrong House and Archives closed, the staff looked at each other and basically said, "Now what?" Our Archivist, Sarah Rose (who has since moved on but wow, did she leave her mark), came up with the idea of a Virtual Exhibit site, while our Acting Director, Jeff Rosenstock, came up with the idea that it should revolve around the theme of "home" since basically everyone in the world was stuck at home. I came up with the name "That's My Home" and we were off and running with the URL https://virtualexhibits.louisarmstronghouse.org/
Now, I always have to make it clear that if I had my preference, OF COURSE, I would wish for no COVID-19 or pandemic and that life could have gone on in Queens as usual. But in terms of silver linings, they don't come any more silver than this. There's no way I would have had time to curate a Virtual Exhibit site during my regular working duties, so that's part one. But there's also the $2.7 million grant from Robert F. Smith's Fund 2 Foundation that allowed us to digitize everything over the course of two years, over 60,000 individual assets that I could easily access from anywhere.
Thus, when the pandemic hit and my commute ended, I now had more time to sit at home, think of topics, download images from the cloud and start putting together content. I've been working at the Armstrong Archives since 2009 and that work has always been completely separate from my blog, thanks to an arrangement agreed upon early on by longtime Director, the late Michael Cogswell, basically stipulating that I wouldn't write the blog on company time and I wouldn't use any Archival material for the blog. Understood.
But now it was a whole new ballgame. I could think of any topic and use Louis's tapes, writings, photos, records you name it. You can explore the site at the above URL for yourself but here are some of my favorite entries to date:
(That last one might sound familiar because it was originally a blog of mine from 2015 but now armed with the digitized Archives I was able to add more photos and even audio of the last song Louis listened to before he passed away in 1971.)
I've also done a four-part series on the 50th anniversary of the album Louis Armstrong and His Friends, a three-part page-by-page exploration of a scrapbook Louis compiled shortly before his passing and nearly every week, have contributed an entry to "Satch's Tracks," a look at Louis's record and tape collection, containing posts on him listening to Jelly Roll Morton, reading the Gettysburg Address and everything in between.
Of course, I have not done this alone; before she left, Sarah Rose contributed some killer pieces on Armstrong's collages and one on Lucille Wilson Armstrong, while Visitor Services Manager Adriana Filstrup put together a beautiful look at Louis's relationship to his Corona, Queens neighborhood, utilizing Armstrong's own words. We also started a video series of myself and drummer, educator, historian and LAHM Gift Shop Manager Hyland Harris talking Pops, called "Hanging With Hyland."
As of this writing, we still have no idea when we will be back to work at the Armstrong House or the Archives at Queens College, but the "That's My Home" site has truly revitalized me (the lack of a 2 1/2 hour--one-way--commute helps, too) and I'm excited to keep churning out weekly entries in the weeks and months to come.
Incredibly, the site has received a tremendous amount of publicity, thanks to the gurus at Shore Fire Media, who managed to get people to care about Louis Armstrong when 99% of the stories in the news were about the virus. Geoff Edgers did a beautiful spread about the "That's My Home" site in the Washington Post and also had me on the Post's podcast, while Brian Zimmerman interviewed me live over at Jazziz as part of their video series.
Speaking of video series', I've done more interviews over Zoom, Facebook Live and Instagram Live than I can accurately recall but they've all been a lot of fun and I do think two are worth sharing here. First, the great trumpeter Byron Stripling had me on an episode of his "Offstage" show, part of the Jazz Arts Project of Columbus, Ohio, back in April. Here's the results:
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And my friend reedman Giacomo Smith of the fabulous London-based Kansas Smitty's interviewed me in May for a conversation that provided many sneak peaks into the themes I'm tackling in my upcoming book.
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Finally, the book: Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong is at the printer as I write this and is set for an official publication date of September 1! I'm very excited to share this labor of love with the world and hope it leads to a resurgence of interest in Armstrong's middle period that his later years have experienced since the publication of my first book.
It's still early but the first review trickled in from Kirkus and it's a good one! I quote:
"An account of the famed trumpeter’s rise to superstardom in the 1930s and ’40s. Drawing on interviews, oral histories, and archival sources from the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where he is Director of Research Collections, Riccardi creates a vibrant portrait of Armstrong (1901-1971) focused on his career from 1929 to 1947, when he had a decisive impact on both jazz and popular music. In the 1920s, writes the author, Armstrong’s style of improvisation and jazz singing freed singers “from the shackles of the written melody, showing them how to interpret a song in an original manner while popularizing scat singing along the way.” Riccardi details Armstrong’s relationships with his many agents and wives; his recordings, movie appearances, and performances throughout the U.S. (in 1931, on a Southern tour, he hired a bodyguard) and, beginning with a much-anticipated appearance in London in 1932, throughout Europe. Although he garnered huge audience acclaim, some critics were less enthusiastic—or even overtly racist. In London in 1933, one reviewer panned what he heard as “incoherent, ecstatic, rhythmical jungle noises.” That view was decidedly in the minority, however, as Armstrong’s ebullient stage presence catapulted him to popularity. In 1936, besides “record-breaking” performances, he produced hit records, “the first published autobiography by an African American musician, and a buzzworthy performance in a major motion film.” But by the late 1940s, some—notably Dizzy Gillespie—criticized Armstrong’s “natural comedic ability” for being too much like a “plantation character.” The two men ended as friends, however, with Gillespie recognizing “what I had considered Pops’s grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile.” Riccardi, whose previous book covered Armstrong’s later years, brings the same erudition and enthusiasm to his latest.
An appreciative, deeply informed biography."
I'll take it! And though they don't quite count as reviews, I was lucky enough to receive blurbs from six people I admire immensely and having their seal of approval sincerely means the world to me. I'm thrilled to publicly share their words here for the first time: