Cover of brochure created by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Education Department. This pamphlet is an excellent short bio of Louis Armstrong with lists of suggested recordings, readings and addition resources. I found it at the LAHM Archive and brought home a few to give to Stop-Time participating musicians and artists. The bell, the hands, the handkerchief, the cuff links, the white cuffs….and the title Armstrong 101: A Beginner’s Guide, the life course I’m enrolled in.
Tourists, fans, pilgrims travel great distances to house museums. Where else do they stand the chance of finding the essence of the admired personality? Here is Lincoln’s bed or Elvis’s or Louis Armstrong’s. My favorite examination of this phenomenon is Diller and Scofidio’s Tourism: Suitcase Studies (1991) fifty Samsonite suitcases (all identical, one for each state) open, suspended at eye level, arranged in a 10 x 5 grid. Centered in each suitcase is a postcard, the bed of someone famous or the site of a battlefield. Everything in the exhibition depends on display, careful graphics, precise arrangements that create the dazzling result. This is not about homage but the economics of tourism. The postcard is key not only for its image but the way it is positioned with mirrors to reveal front and back. Also listed is the state’s rank in income from tourism. Beds and battles, what history and money is all about.
So it’s logical that I’d travel to the Louis Armstrong House Museum to find the essence of the person in the material remains. But the archive is equally vital for there you can access materials, sit leisurely, listening or reading, and, best of all, handle them.
I went to the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archive looking for handkerchiefs. I needed an object, a focus, a mission, a start in the hundreds of thousands of papers, photographs, and objects. I chose his handkerchiefs because cloth is always the draw. All of my visual art centers on the connection between cloth and body. Almost as dear to my heart is laundry, the process more than the equipment to perform it, though ironing boards, clothespins, mangles fascinate me too.
I had not performed an object search in the online catalog before traveling on the E train and Q64 bus last Tuesday in a chill 12 degree wind to Queens College. Given the hundreds of handkerchiefs Louis used in each performance and the thousands he went through in his lifetime (can you picture him holding the trumpet without a handkerchief?) I figured the collection would be rich. In fact, there are two.
One is a white 13½” square, the other a white 18½” square. Both are part of the Satchmo collection. The core collection is the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Collection, 5000 photographs, 85 scrapbooks, 650 reel-to-reel tapes, personal papers (e.g. hotel bills) and objects. The Satchmo Collection contains letters, autographed programs, and a few objects given by many donors, most of them fans who met Louis once, perhaps in his dressing room before or after a performance. The third collection is the Jack Bradley Collection, an expansive treasure of photographs and memorabilia donated by Bradley, a close friend.
A short digression: in searching all handkerchief records, mentions occur on Louis’s recorded tapes. On one tape several female fans visit Louis asking him to dedicate songs to them in his 6:30 performance and again in the 9:30 one. Louis agrees and asks them to write out their names. I never heard the handkerchief mention but no matter. Velma Middleton, Louis’s vocalist with the All Stars and a dear friend, drops by, they sing back and forth, she moves on. The Archives Assistant, Lesley Zlabinger, who helped me search for materials, said Louis often left the recorder running for hours picking up the occasional random conversation. How easy it would be to spend hours and hours listening. How difficult to choose the 72 minutes for Disc 2 of The Fleischmann Yeast Show and Louis’s Home Recorded Tapes from the thousands of hours.
Back to the two handkerchiefs. Each was given to the collection years later. The larger handkerchief is noteworthy because Louis autographed it—“To Sweet Lucy F——— Louis Armsrong and Lucille 1959. Written in green ink. I wondered if the ink had changed color with age. “No,” Lesley said, “Louis often used a pen with green ink. He used green typewriter ribbons as well. He loved green ink.” Seeing the green against the white as I handled the handkerchief (with white gloves) was the defining moment, why photographs can never replace touch. This handkerchief was donated in 2000. I like to think of it as a prized possession passed to the next generation and then finally the decision that many would benefit through giving it to the archive.
I also handled two pieces of paper, two laundry lists, the first, the standard dry cleaners list with 38 handkerchiefs, dated 11-10-64. The other is a handwritten list on the letterhead of Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo, NY, no date: Mr. Louis Armstrong—1 pajama set, 3 white shirts, 5 sport shirts, 7 shorts, 7 pr socks, 90 hankies. Both items from the Jack Bradley Collection, marked by Bradley with large black arrows by the handkerchief entries.
Good to see, but……oh, I wish there were more handkerchiefs, more lists, all those handkerchiefs winnowed to these two.