The man behind the music man
Cogswell safeguards the past of jazz man Louis Armstrong
Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives.
Michael Cogswell (Music ’83) wasn’t always a devoted Louis Armstrong fan. Like most jazz musicians, he knew and respected the work of the legendary trumpet master. But when the ad crossed his desk for a job at Queens College in New York City to arrange, catalog and preserve the substantial body of Armstrong’s personal papers, home recordings, scrapbooks and photographs, he knew it was his dream job.
As curator of the Louis Armstrong Collection of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives since 1991, Cogswell has become not only an authority on the work of the famous musician, singer, bandleader and entertainer, but a great admirer of the humble and generous man behind the music.
“There’s no enthusiast like a convert,” Cogswell said.
Cogswell is now sharing his enthusiasm with the public as director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which opened its doors October 15.
In 1943, Louis and his wife Lucille bought this simple frame house — Cogswell called it “a little Archie Bunker house” — on a tiny side street in the working class neighborhood of Corona in Queens. The couple lived in the house, now a historic landmark, until their deaths (Louis in 1971, Lucille in 1983).
“That’s a remarkable part of the story,” Cogswell said, “because in 1943, Louis was already a superstar. He could have lived on a big estate on the north shore of Long Island with a swimming pool in the shape of a trumpet.”
Armstrong was, as Cogswell puts it, “a delightfully eccentric packrat.” So when historians first went through the house, they unearthed a treasure trove of gems. They found 5,000 photographs, including candids of the performer playing with neighborhood kids and snapshots of him posing with his band in front of their bus in the 1930s. They also discovered 650 home-recorded reel-to-reel tapes, more than 200 of which are spoken-word recordings of Armstrong and the boys backstage swapping dirty jokes, or Armstrong and Lucille telling stories as they entertained in their home. There were 120 gold records, awards and plaques; five gold-plated trumpets; 85 scrapbooks; and hundreds of pages of an unpublished autobiographic manuscript in which Armstrong reminisces about his childhood in New Orleans.
“It’s an intensely personal look into Louis’s life,” Cogswell said.
Cogswell documents much of this intimate side of the man known affectionately as Satchmo in his new book, “Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo,” which was released just in time for the museum’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
Cogswell grew up in Fairfax County, Va., where he played saxophone in several bands. After high school, he headed off to U.Va. in 1971 but continued performing. Three semesters in, though, it became clear that music was what was most important to him, so he left school, moved to Boston and began to work full-time as a professional musician.
Eight or nine years later, Cogswell decided he was tired of driving around in a van with a bunch of guys playing in bars every night. He returned to U.Va., earned a bachelor’s degree in music, then discovered another love: library work and archiving.
After graduating, he worked in the University’s music library for three years, then moved to Denton, Texas where he worked in the music library at the University of North Texas and earned a master of music degree in musicology with a concentration in jazz studies.
Now, Cogswell has been immersed in Louis Armstrong for 13 years, combining his love of music with his passion for preserving the history of this legendary jazz figure.
“I’m totally nuts about Louis, and I haven’t hit bottom yet,” he said.