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'Fresh Air' Remembers Jazz Archivist And Historian Michael Cogswell


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: Michael Cogswell, whose life's work was devoted to preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong, died last week at the age of 66 from complications of bladder cancer. Cogswell was a musician with a master's in jazz studies, when in 1991 he responded to an advertisement for an archivist to handle the Louis Armstrong collection. It began Cogswell's 27-year association with and dedication to the musician.

Cogswell became the executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, New York, which Cogswell helped renovate and preserve. It's the house Louis Armstrong lived in for the last 30 years of his life with his wife Lucille. The collection includes 650 reel-to-reel tape recordings of songs and conversations, 5,000 photographs, 350 pages of autobiographical manuscripts, 86 scrapbooks, 240 acetate discs of live recordings Armstrong made at home, five trumpets and more. Cogswell was also the author of the book "Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story Of Satchmo."

Terry Gross spoke with Michael Cogswell in 2001. She asked him about the Armstrong House.


TERRY GROSS: Why don't you describe the house and the neighborhood that it's in?

MICHAEL COGSWELL: In 1943, Louis and his wife Lucille purchased a simple frame house in the working-class neighborhood of Corona, Queens, and they lived there for the rest of their lives.

GROSS: Describe the interior of the house and what Armstrong was proudest of.

COGSWELL: Well, although it's a very simple frame house - sort of an Archie Bunker house, if you will - they did many remarkable things with the inside. For example, they enclosed the front porch and removed some interior walls to make this gigantic living room, this 70-foot-long living room, which they filled with paintings and upholstered furniture. The downstairs bathroom is covered with mirrors. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with mirrors, and all the fixtures are gold-plated and imported from Italy - many fabulous things with the interior of the house.

GROSS: Why did the Armstrongs live in a working-class neighborhood for the latter part of Armstrong's life when they could have afforded, probably, to live anywhere?

COGSWELL: Well, it's an interesting issue because Louis, when they bought the house, was already a superstar, and they could have lived almost anywhere - perhaps in Beverly Hills, certainly a big estate on the north shore of Long Island. Lucille found the house and purchased it and decorated it without Louis ever having seen it. They were married in '42, and she bought the house in '43. Louis came in off the road. We know this from his own manuscripts. He gave a cab driver an address - take me to this house in Queens. They pulled up front. Louis said, oh, go on, man; take me to the address I gave you. The driver said, no, this is it. So he got out, came up, rang the doorbell. Lucille opened the door - welcome home, honey. She had a home-cooked meal on the table. She had the whole place decorated. And he fell in love with it.

In later years, Lucille tried to convince him to look at an estate on Long Island and a townhouse in Upper Manhattan, and he refused to even consider them. He was very comfortable there in the neighborhood. He knew the neighbors. They knew him. He would hang out on the front steps of the house and talk to neighbors. He would walk up the street to 106th Street and Northern Boulevard - Joe's Artistic Barbershop (ph) - get his hair cut, chew the fat with the guys in the barbershop. He had a very comfortable life there, and he cherished it. It was a real refuge for him when he was off the road.

GROSS: An important part of the Louis Armstrong archives is this huge collection of tapes that he recorded on an old reel-to-reel machine. What kind of things did he record on his reel-to-reel tape machine?

COGSWELL: There are more than 650 tapes in the Armstrong collection at the archives. About half of those are simply dubs of LPs and 78s. Louis would copy his favorite records onto audio tapes so that he could listen to them when he was in the hotel room or the dressing room. He had a steamer trunk custom modified to hold his tape decks and turntables. But he also recorded - the other half of the tapes are spoken word tapes. He would turn his tape recorder onto record when he was hanging out in the dressing room or backstage or wherever. And as a result, we literally have hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape of Louis and the guys sitting around swapping dirty jokes and band stories and Louis and Lucille at home and - you name it.

GROSS: He also recorded many memories about his life. Who was he speaking to when he did that? Was he doing that for posterity?

COGSWELL: That's a good question. Sometimes he would make tapes as spoken word letters. We know from the tape that he was making the tape for an individual - for example, Max Jones, one of his biographers in England. But other tapes, we have to ask ourselves that question - for whom was he making this? And on one level, he's just playing with his tape recorder. He's having fun with his audio equipment. But on another, more profound level, he was making it for us. He was leaving an audio legacy for us.

GROSS: Well, you've brought some tape excerpts with you. Why don't we listen to one of them. And this is a memory of Louis Armstrong's from his childhood in New Orleans, when he came out of the orphans home. Why don't you summarize what's in this? Because it's just a little bit hard to hear, so I think it would be easier to listen to if we already know what we're listening for.

COGSWELL: On New Year's Eve, New Year's of 1912, Louis fired off a pistol in the streets of New Orleans and - to celebrate New Year's Eve, and his little buddies were with him. And there was a policeman nearby who saw this. Louis had been in some minor scrapes with the law before, and he was sentenced to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys in New Orleans. And he spent roughly 18 months there. When he got out, he was released to the custody of his father. Louis' father had abandoned the family when Louis was an infant. And he continued to live in New Orleans, but Louis had had very little contact with him. So the story Louis is telling is that he's released from the Waifs Home, and he goes to live with his father and his father's new wife and their children.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: When I came out of the Waifs Home, I stayed a while with my father, Willie, and his other wife and family. He had another wife name Gertrude - a nice woman. She thought quite a bit about me. She liked me pretty good, and I thought she was nice, you know. And kind of - I really kind of liked him. She and my father had two boys and a girl. So I stayed with them for a while when I first got out of the Waifs Home. But I commenced to getting a lonesome - ooh, boy - a lonesome - you know what I mean. Well, I mean, I got lonesome for my mother, Mary Ann. And Mary Ann, you know, that's her nickname. And my sister Beatrice, who they called Mama Lucy for a nickname. And before I realized it, I was back living with them again and happy as could be in that great big room where the three of us were so happy, and we lived so happily, so very long.

GROSS: Louis' mother was a teenage prostitute when she gave birth to him. Did he ever hold that against her, that she had been a prostitute?

COGSWELL: Louis always spoke of his mother with the deepest and most sincere respect and affection. He dearly loved her, and she was a huge influence on his life. It's funny. Louis occasionally speaks badly of his father. If you stand back a couple of steps, though, and look at the big picture, what is more likely is that his mother was on the street and was hustling, as Louis would say, and his father left her. And he was - had a very responsible job. He was superintendent in a turpentine factory, which for a black man in turn of the century New Orleans was a good job, and he held that job for many years. And he remarried and raised children with his second wife. So his father, apparently, was quite stable. But Louis worshipped his mother, and he did not have strong feelings for his father.

GROSS: And he writes in his manuscripts that he always felt very comfortable around prostitutes, and in fact, his first wife was a prostitute, too.

COGSWELL: Well, Louis grew up in a neighborhood of New Orleans that was so rough it was nicknamed the battlefield. And that's the environment Louis grew up in, is pimps and prostitutes and street people and nightlife people and gamblers. And he loved them all. He always speaks of his childhood in the most glowing terms of what a wonderful childhood he had. He and his mother and sister lived in a little two-room house with a dirt floor, and there was a privy out back. And they were so poor that, occasionally, Louis and his sister would go through garbage to find vegetables and - so they could cut out the rotten parts and eat what was remaining. But in spite of that type of childhood, Louis always refers to his childhood with great affection.

DAVIES: Michael Cogswell, whose life work was preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong. Cogswell died last week. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2001 interview with Michael Cogswell, executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York. He died last week at the age of 66.


GROSS: Armstrong did have some pretty powerful things to say during the civil rights movement. What are some of the statements he made?

COGSWELL: Perhaps the most famous one is - when the Little Rock crisis was unfolding, Louis was out in the boondocks - I think North Dakota - and a local reporter knocked on his door to interview the famous Mr. Armstrong who's in town. Louis, at that time, was watching the television news broadcast about Little Rock, and he let loose with both barrels. He said that President Eisenhower was two-faced and had no guts. He called Governor Orval Faubus an uneducated plowboy. He said the way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. The reporter wrote this up, took it back to his editor. The editor knew exactly what he had and showed it to Louis, and Louis approved it - wrote solid at the bottom of the sheet. It got published. It got picked up by The Associated Press and went out all over the world. That's the most famous statement Louis made about civil rights.

But in his dressing room tapes and in his manuscripts, you can tell that Louis, as a rule, felt that he could do more for the civil rights struggle by being Louis Armstrong, by performing, by knowing his fans, by traveling around the world. And that's the tact he took.

GROSS: He also wrote about, you know, his pleasures in his journals, and one of the pleasures that he wrote about was smoking marijuana, which he did from the age of 26 on. And when he started smoking, there weren't any laws against it. He wrote, it puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics, dope and all that kind of crap. It's actually a shame.

COGSWELL: Well, it's true. He was a lifelong pot smoker. And having said that, Louis was also the consummate professional. He was always on time and ready to play and one of the most creative people of this century or any other century. He would speak about his pot smoking in his writings and in the tapes, you know, just in casual references. It was no secret that he smoked marijuana.

I think one of the most amusing things that comes to mind - there was a biography of Armstrong published that mentioned in passing that Mezz Mezzrow did arrangements for the Louis Armstrong orchestra in the '30s. And I and other people read that and said, gee, that doesn't sound right. I mean, Mezz Mezzrow was a part-time clarinet player, but he didn't have the technical facility to do arrangements for a big band. Where on Earth did that come from? Well, a couple of years ago, we acquired a copy of an Armstrong letter from the Library of Congress, a letter that Louis wrote to Mezz Mezzrow in the 1930s, and he says, in essence, dear Mezz, we're doing a tour of Europe, and I need some arrangements. Now, you have to understand that Mezz Mezzrow was Louis Armstrong's pot dealer. He says, Mezz, I need some arrangements. I need enough arrangements to last six weeks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COGSWELL: And I need some really good arrangements, and I'm wiring the money to the American Express office in Paris. And you dig, Daddy? I know you'll understand. So apparently, the biographer had seen this letter and not really understood what Louis was saying.

GROSS: One of Armstrong's big hits in the mid-'50s was "Mack The Knife," which is, you know, the Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht song from "The Threepenny Opera." And with Armstrong, it became this big pop hit. There's a recording that he made with Lotte Lenya of the song. And Lenya, by this time, was the widow of Kurt Weill. And she, of course, was in the original production of "Threepenny Opera." Her style of singing is much more of a theater music style, not the kind of behind-the-beat jazz style of Armstrong. And on this recording, it seems to be Armstrong's session, and he's coaching her in the kind of rhythm that he wants. And I think it's really fascinating to listen to him control the session and coach Lenya. So I thought we could give this a listen. Anything you want to say about this track?

COGSWELL: Well, we have tapes of this in the Armstrong archives. It is fascinating. Lotte Lenya has come by this recording session, and Louis is coaching her on the coda, on the tag to "Mack The Knife." And she just can't get that final syncopation, and Louis is so gracious and so patient with her. It's really a great example of these two together.

GROSS: Well, Michael Cogswell, good luck with your work with the Armstrong House and archives. Thank you so much for talking with us.

COGSWELL: Oh, thanks for your interest.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Sukey Tawdry.

LOTTE LENYA: (Singing) Jenny Diver.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Look at you, Lotte Lenya.

LENYA: (Singing) Sweet Lucy Brown.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the line forms on the right, yes.

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in town.

ARMSTRONG: That's all right. No, you got to do - we're going to straighten that. (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: Then we'll pick up from there.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: Nah, we'll straighten it out.


ARMSTRONG: See - like this. (Singing) Dah-dah-dah (ph). See? Macky's...

LENYA: That's easy for you (laughter).

ARMSTRONG: It's like a phrase (laughter).

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in...

ARMSTRONG: No, no - make it eight note. (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: Good.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Back in town. One, two, three. Like this.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: As long as you're speeding this up, you know, you don't...

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's...


LENYA: (Singing) Back in - no?

ARMSTRONG: That's right. If you sing it fast, it's still...

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: See - 'cause I'm going to start blowing right over you.

LENYA: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now that Macky's - boom - back in town.

LENYA: (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: One, two, three.

LENYA: Yeah. (Singing) Back in town.

ARMSTRONG: That's it. That's it. Now we can go right from the vocal. Come on.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Where you starting from?

COGSWELL: From the clarinet. Great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tell me when it's ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, vocal only - take one.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the shark has... Well, no, let them (inaudible). (Singing) Now, that Macky's - boom...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, Tawdry, take two.

ARMSTRONG: All the way in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, just the Sukey Tawdry.

ARMSTRONG: Oh, the same.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Sukey Tawdry.

LENYA: (Singing) Jenny Diver.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Lotte Lenya.

LENYA: (Singing) Oh, sweet Lucy Brown.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the line forms on the right, yeah.

LENYA: (Singing) Now that Macky's back in town.

DAVIES: That's Louis Armstrong coaching singer Lotte Lenya from a recording archived at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Michael Cogswell was the executive director of the museum. He died last week. Cogswell spoke with Terry Gross in 2001. His final project is a $23 million education center across the street from the Armstrong House to hold the archives, an exhibition gallery and a jazz club, though construction has been halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "Upload," the new comedy series by Greg Daniels, who brought us the American version of "The Office." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.