Ricky Riccardi’s devotion to Louis Armstrong began when he was a high school freshman in Toms River, New Jersey. Then 15, the future director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York caught Armstrong’s cameo in The Glenn Miller Story. Already a fan of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Riccardi heard the similarities between Armstrong and Preservation Hall. Although the singer-trumpeter’s appearance in The Glenn Miller Story is brief, it inspired Riccardi to borrow an Armstrong cassette tape, 16 Most Requested Songs, from the library. The tape knocked him out. So began Riccardi’s lifelong study of the jazz star from New Orleans who charmed the world.
By his senior year in high school, Riccardi set his sights on earning a master’s in jazz history and research from Rutgers University. In 2007, after graduate school, he launched an Armstrong blog, dippermouth.blogspot.com, hoping it would stir interest in the book he was writing about the great Satchmo. The blog eventually drew the attention of Armstrong followers from throughout the world, including New Orleans writer Jon Pult, then the booker for lectures at Satchmo SummerFest. In 2008, Riccardi presented his first Armstrong video series at the festival. He’s returned every year since.
In 2009, Riccardi left his house-painting job to accept an archivist position at the Armstrong House Museum. The following year, Pantheon Books subsequently published his book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. In 2020, Oxford University Press will publish Riccardi’s second book, Heart Full of Rhythm, an account of Armstrong’s big-band years.
This year at Satchmo SummerFest, during the festival’s kickoff party at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, Riccardi will receive the Spirit of Satchmo Award from French Quarter Festivals, which organizes Satchmo SummerFest. And as usual he’ll present his Video Pops programs. The presentations are at the Hilton Satchmo Legacy Stage in the New Orleans Jazz Museum at 4:30 p.m. August 2, 3, and 4. At noon on August 3, he’ll also emcee the New Orleans Classic Big Band’s performance of Armstrong’s big band arrangements.
The program notes for Satchmo SummerFest describe you as a “Satchologist.”
Michael Cogswell, longtime director of the Armstrong House Museum, took a liking to that name. That was my designation for a number of years, but more people go with Rickipedia these days.
Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, loved Louis Armstrong. In August 2014, he released his tribute album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, and visited the Armstrong House Museum. In November 2015, the museum honored Dr. John at its annual gala. What encounters did you have with him?
The visit to the house was a photo shoot for Esquire Magazine. It was his first time there. It was an emotional experience for him and, obviously, very special experience for the staff. He sat right down at Louis’ piano in the living room and knocked out a few choruses of blues. He talked about how his father put it in his head that Louis was a major ambassador for the city’s music. New Orleans probably has more ambassadors than any other city in America, but you have to put Dr. John on that list alongside Armstrong.
Did Dr. John read your book about Armstrong, What a Wonderful World?
As he left the house in 2014, I laid a copy of my book on him. The next time I saw him was in England at the Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival. I went to his sound check and he spotted me from the stage. He said, “Ricky, man. I love your book.” That was one of those moments when I was like, ‘All right, I can die now.’ He was so friendly, so relaxed, so approachable. Just beautiful. I only spent three occasions in his presence, but all of them were memorable.
What led you to Louis Armstrong?
The big bang for me was around October 1995. In September, I’d seen the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in concert in Atlantic City. I got to them through the music in the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper. That music spoke to me. Right around that time, I saw Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story. My ears put it all together: Ooh. This sounds like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And once I got deeper into Armstrong, I was never the same. And even before Armstrong and Preservation Hall, my dad introduced me to Louis Prima. I still have a deep love for him. I didn’t know what jazz was then, I didn’t know what New Orleans music was, but whatever was going on between Prima and Preservation Hall and Armstrong rang my bell.
What was it about Armstrong that touched you so much?
The one word that sums it up is joy. He made me feel good. And I’d come to Armstrong from this long love of comedy and comedians. I found Armstrong funny, too. And I’d been playing the piano since I was seven, so I knew something was going on, musically, that I’d never quite heard before. It was a combination of the music being unbeatable and Armstrong being really funny. At that impressionable time in my life, I could not get enough of Armstrong’s joy. To this minute, I still feel it every time I hear him.
In high school, were you delighted that Rutgers University offered a master’s degree in jazz history and research?
All of a sudden, the future became clear. I was like, Whatever I do in undergrad, I need to end up in that program. I need to write a thesis about Armstrong’s later years. Then I’ll turn that thesis into a book and live happily ever after. But I never thought it would be easy. To do this for a living, I had to follow a very narrow path. Somehow, I was able to thread the needle.
But after graduate school, you were painting houses and getting rejections for your Armstrong book proposal.
I was a house painter who wanted to write a book and lecture, but I had no experience. So, I started the blog in July 2007. For months, nobody knew it existed. But then a trickle of interest came in early 2008. Jon Pult was one of those people.
Pult, then the booker for lectures at Satchmo SummerFest, gave you a chance?
I give Jon all the credit in the world for my break. He read my blog and sent an email message to me saying they were looking for some new faces at Satchmo SummerFest. My wife and I went that first year. I was overwhelmed. At the opening reception was Gary Giddins, David Oswald, Michael Cogswell, George Avakian, and Dan Morgenstern—my heroes. So, most of that night I sat in the corner with my wife thinking, What am I doing here?
How did your video presentations go that first year?
The first day I had technical difficulties and a small crowd. But I guess there was some buzz, because the next day the room was almost full. And the front row was murderers’ row: Gary Giddins, George Avakian, Dan Morgenstern. My theme was Louis on television, various clips of him on The Milton Berle Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour. That one went over great. And Gary Giddins gave me some words of encouragement afterwards.
The third day was footage of Louis on The David Frost Show and other TV programs during the last few years of his life. It was standing room only. My last clip was going to be “What a Wonderful World,” but Michael Gourrier, the emcee, wanted to give me the hook. I appealed to the audience. “Can I have one more clip? Ninety seconds.” Everybody said, “Let him go.” I showed “What a Wonderful World” and got a standing ovation. My wife ran out of the room crying. She called my parents. I felt I had arrived. I’d gone from being a scared kid on the first day that couldn’t even open his month to a standing ovation at the end.
But your life didn’t change much after that, at least not immediately.
Painting houses two days later. But in that same month my agent told me we got the book deal with Pantheon. I still painted houses, but it felt like things were about to change.
And the following year you interviewed for an archivist job at the Armstrong House Museum?
The interview was aimed at an archivist’s brain. Half of the interview I didn’t know what I was talking about. But the other half was all Armstrong questions, so I was on solid ground. Michael [Cogswell] realized that it might be easier to hire an Armstrong expert and teach them how to arrange, preserve and catalog, than to hire the world’s greatest archivist and teach them everything about Louis Armstrong.
Why did Armstrong work so hard in his 60s and 70s?
He was happiest when he was on stage. That was what he lived for. And he always told cautionary tales about musicians who only cared about money. Or they wouldn’t go on stage until the band played a half-hour and then they’d play only two songs. Armstrong never wanted to do any of that. He wanted to be the first one on stage, give one-hundred percent, be there the whole time. He hated days off and vacations. It was never an issue of money. He had more money than he’d ever need. He was put on this Earth to play.
Ricky Riccardi presents Video Pops at 4:30 p.m. August 2, 3, and 4 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.