In conversation with Michael Cogswell
An interview with the author of Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo
Michael Cogswell was hired by Queens College in 1991 to arrange, preserve, and catalog the collections of the Louis Armstrong Archives. In 1995 the college asked him to lead the project to open the Louis Armstrong House as a museum. Mr. Cogswell has made presentations about Louis Armstrong in Washington D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco, and Europe, and he has appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” ABC-TV’s Nightline, and CBS Sunday Morning.
Molly Sheridan: So, when you began this project 12 years ago, what did you walk into?
Michael Cogswell: I was hired in 1991 by Queens College to arrange, preserve, and catalogue Louis Armstrong‘s vast personal collection of reel-to-reel tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, gold records and awards, and papers and so forth that were discovered in his house. My first day at work I walked into the archival center in Rosenthal Library at Queens College and there were 72 shipping cartons of stuff stacked up and there was a chair and a desk. That was about it. I actually had to borrow a pad of paper and a pencil to begin work. But we started from there and then three years later we opened to the public as the Louis Armstrong Archives.
Molly Sheridan: Did you question your decision to take on the job when you go to work that first day?
Michael Cogswell: Oh, no. I had been there for an interview so I knew what to expect. It was actually fulfilling that we started from nothing and then three years later we had a whole six-room suite filled up with an exhibit area, reading room, and collection stacks and everything was ready to go.
Molly Sheridan: Now, you were going through a lot of his personal things, and then making that public. Did you have any reservations about that after sifting through these very personal artifacts from his life?
Michael Cogswell: No, Louis was a very public person. His letters even to fans and casual backstage acquaintances are very candid, very open. He was very open in interviews. Unfortunately he would always get asked the same questions again and again, you know, ‘How did you start playing trumpet?’ and things like that. But when good interviewers asked him penetrating questions he gave terrific answers. Louis was always very open with everybody, and there was nothing to hide. Louis was open about his music and his marriages and his marijuana use, so there was really very little that I felt was private, you know, that Louis would not want to have known. Who you saw onstage on the Ed Sullivan Show, smiling and laughing and making music and cracking jokes, that’s who he was offstage too. Maybe the only concern that would fall in this category—on some of the backstage dressing room tapes Louis and guys are sitting around swapping dirty jokes and band stories. We did have an issue on access, such as what if a 10-year-old wants to come in and listen to those tapes. What should we do? Do we put a parental advisory sticker on our service copy CDs or what? But we haven’t been faced with that yet.
Molly Sheridan: After all the work you’ve done for the archive, is there anything that sticks out in your mind that was maybe especially surprising, something you almost had to run and call someone to say, ‘You won’t believe what I found!’? Maybe in a way a lot of days were filled with little stuff like that…
Michael Cogswell: Yeah. As I said there was no great revelation. When the archives opened in 1994 reporters would ask: ‘Mr. Cogswell, after spending three years processing Louis Armstrong’s personal collection of materials, what great discovery did you make?’ And I knew what they were looking for was something like, ‘Michael Jackson is Louis Armstrong’s love child.’ And there’s nothing like that in there, but the remarkable thing about it is Louis is very real in all of these tape recordings. As far as historical information, again no big revelations, but there are lots of nuggets. Working with the spoken word tapes is like panning for gold. You may listen to 15 or 20 minutes where it’s difficult to tell what’s going on, there are three and four people talking at once, nobody is really on microphone, and then suddenly everybody will stop talking and Louis will tell a story or relate an incident. So the little nuggets are what is so valuable, and they provide a penetrating insight into the working life of a professional jazz musician, Louis’s life in particular. He tells stories about racial discrimination in the South. He tells backstage stories of who did what and who said what to whom. It’s all very, very interesting.
Molly Sheridan: I know a lot of people say that in some ways after all this work you know him better than anyone, and yet you never met him. Is that strange to you?
Michael Cogswell: Well, when Louis passed away in 1971, I had just graduated from high school and was just making my first gigs as a professional saxophonist. So I never met him. I would have liked to have met him, but fate did not play out that way. But I do feel like I’m meeting him now from my years spent working with his manuscripts and tapes and trumpets and so forth, and then also my years spent working in his house and interpreting his house to others. So it’s just the way that it has played out.
Molly Sheridan: Did you find it difficult distilling everything you knew about him into this very concise, almost coffee table book?
Michael Cogswell: No. When I began to write the book I guess like any author my fear was, ‘How am I going to fill up all these pages? I have a contract with a publisher and I have to give him X number of words. How am I ever going to do that.’ But then once it started taking shape, I had the opposite problem, you know, ‘How do I condense it?’ And you’re right, there are many, many things that I left out. I ended up writing much more than could possibly fit in the book and then I had to start editing and throwing things out to meet the required word length and that’s always difficult. I guess a good way to summarize this book is that it’s been my privilege to work with Louis’s stuff for all these years. I’ve had the privilege to give presentations about Louis in New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago and also all over the world and people have come up to me over the years and said, ‘When are you going to write a book?’ And so what I’ve done is kind of distilled a lot of my presentations and a lot of tours of the house that I’ve given to people and a lot of work I’ve done with researchers in the archive, all this experience I’ve tried to put in this little book. So you can think of the book as Michael Cogswell’s private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Louis Armstrong house and archive.
Molly Sheridan: To finish up then, let’s talk a little about the house. I know there was a big opening celebration not too long ago…
Michael Cogswell: Louis and Lucille Armstrong bought a little two-story frame house in the working class neighborhood of Corona, Queens, in 1943 and they lived there for the rest of their lives. That’s a remarkable story because the house is a very simple home and Louis, in 1943, was already a superstar and he could have lived almost anywhere. I won’t say he was at the height of his fame, but already famous and celebrated, and he purchased this modest little home and he lived here like a regular guy. Today the house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s a New York City Landmark. Nobody has lived here since the Armstrongs. That’s another remarkable thing about this historic site. Many of my sister house museums that are 17th and 18th century houses, they had to recreate the rooms. We didn’t face that problem. This house has been frozen in time. No one has lived here since the Armstrongs, not an ashtray has been moved.
Molly Sheridan: How did that happen in New York of all places where real estate turns over so quickly?
Michael Cogswell: Well, Louis was married four times and never had any children. And his marriage to Lucille was of course the longest one and lasted for decades, the rest of their lives. After Lucille passed the administration of the Armstrong estate fell to a private foundation called the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which was actually formed during Louis and Lucille’s lifetime in 1969. The officers of the foundation had the good sense to know that something needed to be done to preserve this house and the contents, so they arranged for it to be given to the City of New York. The house is actually owned by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, to be administered by Queens College under a long term licensing agreement. They also gave to Queens College Louis’s vast personal collection of scrapbooks, photographs, and tapes and so forth that was discovered in closets and cupboards in the house. So if it wasn’t for their vision and also their annual grant, which is the bedrock of our annual operating budget, we wouldn’t be here as a museum today.
Molly Sheridan: I know Louis had collaged things even onto the walls of the house. One of the photographs in the book is of a wall in his den with images pasted onto it. Is that something you found throughout the house?
Michael Cogswell: No. Louis did at one time put collages on the wall of his den but Lucille thought they were in poor taste. One time when he was on tour she took them all down. So the photographs that are in the book are quite remarkable because they’re the only photographs I’ve ever been able to discover of those collages on the wall. Charlie Graham came out to interview Louis for an article about his audio equipment and he was taking pictures of Louis’s tape decks and turn table and so forth, but what he also happened to catch in the background on the wall was Louis’s collages. But also discovered in the house were 650 tape boxes, and more the 500 of those were decorated front and back with collages. Many of those are reproduced in the book and this is the first time that any publication has really shown an assortment. One or two have appeared, but no one has ever laid them out like this.
Molly Sheridan: Who was to know he was such a visual artist in addition?
Michael Cogswell: Well that’s an excellent point. I mean, we knew Louis was a trumpet player, we knew he was a vocalist, we knew he was an actor. Armstrong fans probably know he was a writer—he published two autobiographies and a dozen major magazine articles. And they might have known he was a philanthropist. But who knew he was a collage maker? This was something not generally known until Queens College started processing the collection.
Molly Sheridan: I love that you’ve also included excerpts of his writing and how it reflects his sense of a musical line, the odd capitalization to create rhythm and everything.
Michael Cogswell: Yeah, I think the key to understanding Louis’s prose is to read it out loud. You hear the emphasis, you hear the rhythm and the meter. It’s very, very musical. Even his misspellings are phonetic in nature. He’s trying to get a certain sound.