Tag Archives: civil rights


Louis Armstrong was Ambassador Satch, spreading joy and enlightenment throughout the world.  An ambassador inspired by him, our own Ricky Riccardi — the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archivist and author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years –appeared on Al Jazeera English this afternoon to discuss the new recording “Satchmo at the National Press Club,” the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and Louis’s role as a civil rights pioneer:

Good deal!

Please remember to keep voting for the Louis Armstrong House Museum at www.partnersinpreservation.org daily through May 21 to help restore Louis’s garden!

May your happiness increase.


The caricatures aren’t subtle, and what was inclusive perhaps fifty-five years ago might seem narrow in our more diverse society . . . but the message remains true.  Before the Freedom Riders and the lunch-counter heroes, there was Hot Lips Page in Artie Shaw’s brass section — and (a story only readers of Richard M. Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS know) Bobby Hackett gave Lips a place in his band, too.  And then there’s that Eddie Condon fellow, breaking color lines in 1929 . . . but here we can celebrate Benny, Teddy, Lionel, and Gene, runnin’ wild for freedom and tolerance:

Thanks, once again, to 1964Mbrooks, who’s got rhythm as well as taste — his other postings on YouTube are worth your attention.


Three singular personalities have been responsible for much of what we now take for granted in jazz in the last hundred years in recordings and public performance: John Hammond, George Wein, and Norman Granz.

Hammond wrote his own somewhat mythic autobiography and was the subject of a tepid posthumous biography.  Wein, the only member of the trio still with us, has an expansive autobiography.  Granz, who died in 2001, discouraged efforts to write his story until journalist and jazz scholar Tad Hershorn entered his life.  And Hershorn’s biography of Granz is a substantial accomplishment.

A book on Granz as record producer (for fifty years) would have been intriguing in itself, for even though Granz alternated between being controlling and negligent, he recorded Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Young, Webster, Tatum, Parker, Gillespie, O’Day, Getz, Hampton, Wilson, Konitz, Hawkins, Eldridge, Rich, Peterson, Ellington, Basie . . . The sessions are uneven, but the energy animating them is undeniable, and the successes are memorable.  Imagine a jazz cosmos without JATP, Norgran, Clef, Verve, Pablo.

Another book might have chronicled Granz the concert promoter — the inventor of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the model for many concerts to come after its inception in the early Forties.  (Who else would have Louis, Ella, and Tatum on the same bill?)

And there might have been another book concerning Granz as friend-of and sometimes enemy-of: his relations with Picasso, with Sinatra, Ellington, Peterson, Fitzgerald, among others, are intriguing windows into his character and theirs, providing both inspiring and acrimonious anecdotes.

But the narrative Hershorn chose to tie these stories together is Granz’s vehement, unwavering vision of jazz as a racially integrated music played in public for integrated audiences.  Younger (or more idealistic) readers may be startled by the historical information that emerges in the first fifteen years of Granz’s years as a concert promoter: yes, there were drinking fountains for “colored” and “white,” as well as restaurants that did not serve anyone appropriately light-skinned.  Granz, who often appears to be someone indifferent to social grace, an abrasive, self-righteous and self-absorbed figure, comes through as a heroic figure who made it possible for “mixed” audiences to sit together and to hear American music (a struggle, I must point out, that he didn’t originate — although he continued it valiantly).

Hershorn’s book is the result of fifteen years of work on the subject, including a number of in-person interviews of an ailing (although still acerbic) Granz.  The book is thoroughly researched — some forty pages of footnotes, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, rare photographs.  The book has no competition, and he has spoken with people who knew Granz — from publicist Virginia Wicks to Peterson to Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff — so this book has a freshness many other jazz biographies lack because the important sources are long dead.

But Granz — energetic, willful, moving quickly — is a difficult subject because he is always in motion.  Occasionally Hershorn’s chronological organization (with extended considerations of important musicians and friends) seems like an airport walkway, efficient but constraining.  At times the mere data seems overwhelming: during the JATP period, we learn about every concert tour — the players, itinerary, gross receipts.  A biographer should fall in love with the material, and is writing both for the contemporary audience and for future generations who may use the book as an invaluable research tool.  But some of this material might have profitably been placed in an appendix, unless it was needed for the dramatic arc of the story.

Granz’a extended career and long active life — I would not have wished it otherwise — also pose problems for a biographer properly intent on showing him an unacknowledged civil rights pioneer.  Once Granz can be sure that the local police won’t attempt to plant drugs on his musicians; once they can stay at the best hotels; once there is no restriction on who can sit where in the audience, much of the air goes out of the book.  Once the battle has been won, Granz can go on being a wealthy businessman, an art collector, friends with Picasso, playing tennis.  To be fair, this diminuendo is often the inevitable pattern of biographies: when the book is focused on its subject’s struggle towards a goal, what happens to the biography once that goal is achieved?

But overall the book is a fine one.  Hershorn has managed his relationship to his subject with great grace.  Some biographers loathe their subject and crow over errors of judgment,  meanness of spirit.  Others adore their subjects and make excuses for bad behavior.  Hershorn is careful, accurate, and fair, permitting us to applaud what Granz made possible even if we find the man unpleasant.  Hershorn is also a clear writer, although too fond of casual cliche — “the red carpet treatment,” “made no bones about it,” “wined and dined” — for me, but this will not bother others.  And in an era where large, detailed books are becoming more and more rare, to have published this one is a remarkable accomplishment.

If occasionally the reader tires of Granz, the book can be put aside for a day.  Or one might listen to a half-hour of Pres and Teddy, Ben Webster with strings, Billie Holiday with Jimmy Rowles, or one of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.  For those masterpieces, one would forgive Granz anything.


Ricky Riccardi has been intensely focused on Louis Armstrong for half of his life, with extraordinary results. 

His book on Louis’s later life and music — a book that will destroy some wrong-headed assumptions with new evidence — will be out in June 2011.  I’ve seen one or two pages of the galleys, and only because the author was across the table was I cajoled into releasing my hold and giving it back.

To whet your appetite — and also to make it easy to find a copy in that rarest of places, the bookstore, here’s the cover picture, an inspiring one.  You can “pre-order” the book online as well.

But this post isn’t about a forthcoming book. 

It’s about a talk that Ricky gave recently at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE.

(That title was so imposing that Michael Cogswell suggested, whimsically, that Ricky could have called it RED BEANS AND RACE, a play on Louis’s favorite dish.) 

Many times, lectures of this sort relate the indignities that African-Americans suffered (and still suffer) at the hands of Caucasians.  We know there’s plenty of evidence. 

And Ricky didn’t ignore it — from the policeman who hit the boy Louis over the head when for politely asking what time it was to the jazz critic who called his performance in the early Fifties “a coon carnival.”  Louis had gone to New Orleans in triumph in 1931 — an international star — only to have an announcer say, “I just can’t announce that nigger on the radio.” 

But what may have wounded Louis much more was his abandonment and rejection by the members of his own race, “my own people,” who called him “a plantation character” (the words are Dizzy Gillespie’s, although Dizzy later apologized) and an “Uncle Tom.”  These slights may have hurt him as much as seeing authorities beating African-American schoolchildren in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Charcteristically Ricky had more than enough material for an entire afternoon (he promises that it’s all in the book) but he gave us an hour filled with insight, pathos, humor, and wit.  Rather than read Louis’s words aloud, he drew on the private tapes Louis made at home and on the road — a priceless document of his expressiveness, his emotions, his consciousness: in his home, his hotel rooms, talking about his hopes and disappointments. 

Here’s Ricky’s presentation, for those who couldn’t make it to the LAHM and those who want to know what’s in store on the 26th:

First, Deslyn Dyer introduces Ricky: through him, we meet the Louis some people never knew — not only the musician, light-heartedly entertaining for fifty years and more, but the man in search of social justice, the civil rights pioneer:

Ricky then shares the story of the young sailor who greeted Louis by saying, “I don’t like Negroes, but I admire you,” a compliment that might have embittered a lesser man:

More stories: the New Orleans policeman; lynchings in the South.  Louis also explains his often misinterpreted relations with manager Joe Glaser:

Next, Louis tells his friends why an African-American artist would need “a white captain,” talks about being elected King of the Zulus in 1949, about recording SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH for Decca, and the pervasiveness of racism:

When Nat Cole, playing for a segregated audience in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956, was beaten by four men who jumped onstage, the African-American press condemned him, rather than sympathizing with him — which outraged Louis; he also responds to the segregation in New Orleans:

Louis’s violent reaction to what he saw on television in 1957 — in Little Rock, Arkansas: “I have a right to blow my top over injustice”:

And — as a triumphant, mournful climax — Louis’s shattering BLACK AND BLUE in East Berlin (1965), from which I’ve taken the title of this piece:

Louis’s story remains the saga of someone mis-seen and under-acknowledged, a man wounded by the people — of all races — he thought would understand him. 

But Louis prevailed and continues to prevail by embodying great joy in his music.

Ricky will be delivering this lecture again at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on Saturday, February 26th, at 1 and 3 PM.  The house is a remarkable down-to-earth shrine.  And Ricky’s a treasure.





Marc Caparone, Ricky Riccardi, and Michael Cogswell, considering important matters

If you travel in the same musical circles as I do, the name “Ricky Riccardi” won’t be new to you.  He is the creator of an extraordinary blog, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/ — which offers generous helpings of insight, music, and affection on a regular basis; he is Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College; he is the author of a splendid book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (http://www.amazon.com/What-Wonderful-World-Magic-Armstrongs/dp/0307378446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1295474262&sr=8-1) which will be published in May 2011.  (And he’s an improvising jazz pianist, so a diminished chord is no mystery to him.) 

Ricky is a great jazz scholar and diligent excavator of facts, but he is more than a pale library drone: his love of his subject (that’s Mr. Armstrong) is an intense, enlivening thing — so that Louis, never dead, is even more alive when Ricky talks about him, something Ricky is not reluctant to do. 

But uncritical love can get boring to an outsider: what Ricky offers us on his chosen subject is a deep understanding.  He has carefully and thoroughly undermined many of the shallow but ferociously-held critical statements about Louis: that Louis peaked somewhere in 1927, or 1934, or another date; that Louis relied on memorized routines and had lost all creativity in his last quarter-century; that Louis had abandoned “jazz” for “entertainment.”  His research rests firmly on a constant, day-to-day involvement with first-hand materials, and it is thus evidence-based rather than speculative. 

All of this is prelude to the announcement that Ricky will be speaking on the rich and complex topic of “Louis Armstrong and Race,” in celebration of Black History Month 2011 — not once, but four times — at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  His talk will cover a multitude of fascinating topics — from Louis’s birth and childhood in New Orleans to his mid-Fifties public explosions on behalf of civil rights.  I hope he’ll tell the joke that begins with another musician sticking his head into Louis’s dressing room and asking, “Hey, Pops!  What’s new?” but I don’t know if he’ll be taking requests. 

For those readers who stay in after dark, these presentations will take place in the serene afternoon: 1 and 3 PM on Saturday, February 12, and February 26.  The house is located at 34-56 107th Street, and admission to the museum (which includes the presentation) is $8 for adults and $6 for children.  Space is limited, so please call 718-478-8274 or email reservations@louisarmstronghouse.com. to reserve your seat.  I’ll be there, although I don’t yet know which day. 

Visit http://www.louisarmstronghouse.com. for details.