“It’s the finest and largest collection of Armstrong material in private hands – without any doubt,” said Dan Morgenstern, the former longtime director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “It has everything from the trivial to the extraordinary, and a lot of it came from them being together.”
Select items from the monumental collection are on view in a new exhibition opening Tuesday at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.
It covers the last 12 years of Armstrong’s life and features photographs never before published, scanned from original negatives. Due to space limitations, the museum is showing a tiny fraction of the material that includes 2,600 recordings, 2 cubic feet of newspaper clippings, 1,000 fan letters, 1,900 photographic prints – and 6,000 images found on negatives or contact sheets.
“This exhibition is the first foray into making some of these images public for the first time,” said Ricky Riccardi, the archivist for the house museum, a modest brick building where the great jazz musician lived for 28 years and died in 1971. “This is the start of really examining the unique relationship between Jack and Louis.”
The museum, which plans to break ground in the spring on an exhibition center across the street, acquired the collection in 2005 – crammed inside Bradley’s Cape Cod home. It already has the largest publicly held archival collection devoted to a jazz musician in the world.
The longtime friendship with Armstrong was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said the 80-year-old Bradley, a collector of all things jazz who met the performer through a friend, Jeann Failows. Failows helped Armstrong with his fan mail.
Amstrong asked him to come along to “things that the general public would not know about,” Riccardi said. “Just by being his friend he was privy to this information. He was the only photographer at some of these sessions.”
A sign of their closeness can be glimpsed in a 1968 postcard Armstrong sent Bradley and Failows addressed “Dear Children.” And a 1969 note from Armstrong’s wife Lucille informs Bradley of their new telephone number – the same one still used at the museum today.
Among the photographs is a rare image of Armstrong and Miles Davis, who was sometimes portrayed as resentful of Armstrong, smiling together. Another poignant photograph, taken weeks before Armstrong’s death, shows the ailing performer at home playing along with his old recording of Trees.
The museum is offering eight selected prints from the collection for purchase through its new print-to-order feature. The two photographs are among them. The exhibition runs through March 29.
If You Go…
LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM: 34-56 107th St., Corona, Queens, New York City; https://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/ or 718-478-8274. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Adults, $10; seniors, students, children, $7; children under 4 free. By subway, No. 7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza.
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