When Ricky Riccardi was growing up in Toms River, New Jersey in the 1990s, when most kids his age were digging George Michael, or A Tribe Called Quest, Riccardi was into classic Motown, and vintage movies from Hollywood’s classic era. Then one day in 1995 at the age of fifteen, he watched The Glenn Miller Story, the 1954 film starring Jimmy Stewart, which featured the legendary trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong.
“I saw Louis come out and play ‘Basin Street Blues,’ he recalls. “The trumpet playing was spectacular,” Riccardi said during a phone interview. “His singing, his personality, just jumped off the screen, and then I said to myself, ‘I need more’.”
Riccardi brilliantly sums up the life and work of Armstrong in his new book, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong (Oxford University Press, August). It’s the second installment of a three-part trilogy focused on a key period in the career of Armstrong (1901-1971), who was simultaneously one of America’s most popular entertainers as well as one its most influential and cutting-edge musical innovators.
Riccardi, a pianist since the age of seven, spent the years subsequent to his discovery of Armstrong devouring everything he could get his hands on about the famed New Orleans jazz musician: recordings, ephemera, posters, and books. He earned a masters in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University-Newark in 2005, and became director of Research Collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona Queens, New York, the former home of Armstrong and the place where he spent his last years. Riccardi also teaches a graduate course on the trumpeter at the Louis Armstrong Archives, which are located at Queens College.
Armstrong’s rags-and-rhythm-to-riches story is as American as it gets: Born to a sex worker mother and an absentee father, Armstrong (known popularly as Satchelmouth or Satch due to the gravel-like quality of his voice, younger admiring jazz musicians typically called him “Pops”) grew up in poverty (including bouts of juvenile delinquency), took up the trumpet, and was mentored by early jazz trumpet great King Oliver. He established himself as the first major soloist in jazz, he was the first jazz singer, and he virtually invented scat-singing, the stylish practice of using the voice to imitate an instrumental jazz improvisation.
His virtuoso trumpet solo on “West End Blues” recorded in 1928, and seminal recordings from that period with his Hot Five and Hot Seven small-bands (which featured his then-wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong), are among the key musical building blocks of jazz improvisation. But in addition to laying the groundwork for the future development of jazz, Armstrong also went on to become a wildly popular star of stage and screen, an American cultural ambassador and a mega cultural star with a string of popular hit tunes that ranged from “Hello Dolly,” to “What a Wonderful World.” In many ways, Louis Armstrong was a kind of Michael Jackson—he was the king of popular culture in his times.
“Louis Armstrong is the definitive [American musical] figure of the twentieth century,” Riccardi says. “A lot of people know him as a great trumpet player and for singing “What a Wonderful World.” But he completely revolutionized the way people played their instruments and the way they sang with their voices,” Riccardi explains. “He had hit records in every decade. There wouldn’t be a Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Beatles, Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan, or Ray Charles without Louis Armstrong. And if you need one figure to sum up music, race, culture and innovation, and everything that comes with it—food, laxatives, police, drugs,” Riccardi laughs when he refers to Armstrong’s notorious love of marijuana, “it’s Louis Armstrong.”
Riccardi’s book chronicles Armstrong from 1929 to 1947, a pivotal point in Armstrong’s career, a period during which he moved from Chicago to New York, and slowly transformed himself into a singer of popular standards. He also had to deal with severe lip injuries (ominous for a trumpet player), marital discord, a scandalous arrest for marijuana possession in 1930, and racist reviewers, not to mention a hair-raising confrontation with mob-connected managers, before eventually meeting his lifelong manager, Joe Glaser, in 1935.
Riccardi writes: “Armstrong’s trumpet playing and singing were revolutionary but now there was also the comedy, the allusions to marijuana, and perhaps most abundantly, the popularizing of African American slang that is still in use today.” Riccardi emphasizes that “Armstrong was unapologetically Black, taking the same songs being performed by all the white bands and infusing them with a combination of swing and sex and slang and smoke (of the marijuana variety), changing the sound of music and the shape of culture for eternity.” Such popular tunes as “Mack the Knife,” or “When You’re Smiling,” were forever transformed by his gravelly vocals.
Heart Full of Rhythm joins a pantheon of books about Armstrong. But Riccardi says “for this entire book, I barely consulted any of the earlier Armstrong biographies.” Riccardi says. “I wanted all of my sources to be contemporary newspaper or magazine coverage from the period, or the words from [his fellow] musicians themselves. I wanted the period to speak for itself.”
Heart Full of Rhythm is the follow up to Riccardi’s first book in 2011, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (Pantheon). The book covered the last twenty five years of Armstrong’s life, including Armstrong’s outspoken stance on the Civil Rights Movement (after years of being accused of being an “Uncle Tom”), his celebrated tour of Africa in the 1960s, and his final years in Queens. Multi-volume biographies usually start from the early years and proceed to the last. But Riccardi thought he was done after the first book.
“I honestly never thought about writing another book until 2017,” Riccardi says. “Everybody knows The Hot Fives and Sevens and “West End Blues” but there was his middle chunk, the big band period, breaking down barriers and becoming a pop star. Those years were in the same dire shape as the later years. So I decided to write a second book that starts in 1929, the minute after everybody said he hit his peak.”
Riccardi’s goal is to change a longstanding but cliched narrative about Armstrong’s life and work which says that Armstrong peaked as a jazz musician in 1928, sold out to pop music and was eventually worn down by endless touring and became a musical relic. But for Armstrong, who was arguably the most unpretentious superstar ever, his trend toward singing popular tunes, and away from jazz instrumentals, was a problem for critics, but not for him. As he said in one of his famous quotes: “I’m here in the cause of happiness.”
“The jazz world views Armstrong through this very narrow lens,” Riccardi says. “This is the man who wrote our language in the1920s. He created the jazz solo. He extended the range of the horn, and invented scat singing—what a genius. And then they look at the pop stuff, and they say, ‘he sold out.’ ”
But, Riccardi says, “Louis Armstrong brought something unique and unapologetically Black to the genre that is swinging, that is daring. He uses slang, he uses passion, he changes those melodies, he improvises, and it works! That is an incredible accomplishment.”
The third book in the trilogy will cover Armstrong from birth to 1928. “I never intended to write about the early years,” Riccardi says, noting that other Armstrong biographers have already documented that period of his life. However, he adds, “there’s Louis’s own writings, and we do have some things in the archive that have not seen the light of day. I also come at these things from a different angle: some people have a sociological angle, others have a musicological angle. I just love telling stories,” he says and laughs. “The books I write are for a general audience. I think his story is so gripping. I think everybody and anybody can get something out of Louis’s life story.”
Riccardi says his scholarship is a template for young scholars to build upon. “Knowledge of Armstrong’s entire career is important. You should know the man’s voice. You should know his interviews, his letters, and his books including, Louis Armstrong in his Own Words, and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. If you start with that as your foundation, then you can read such biographers as Dan Morgenstern, Terry Teachout, Robert O’Meally, Stanley Crouch and me. But the foundation always has to be Louis.”
Riccardi believes his efforts to expand the legacy of Louis Armstrong, the musician who shaped 20th century American musical taste, will lead to more diverse and daring scholarship about his music in the 21st century. “I still think that we’re early on in this Armstrong renaissance,” Riccardi says.
“Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his passing,” Riccard says. “Now we’ve got books on Armstrong, we’ve got the museum, we got the archives. We’ve got so much incredible scholarship, documentaries and movies being made. I think the Armstrong tent is huge, and growing, and I think that my work, and the work of my colleagues, will inspire others to keep educating the world about the great Louis Armstrong.”