The Queens Museum of Art, Queens, New York, September 23, 1994-January 8, 1995
Museum of African American Life and Culture, Dallas, Texas, January 21-April 2, 1995
Terra Museum of Art, Chicago, Illinois, April 15-June 25, 1995
Stedman Art Gallery, Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey, August 7-October 7, 1995
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, October 28, 1995-January 7, 1996
Strong Museum, Rochester, New York, January 27-April 7, 1996
Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, Savannah, Georgia, April 27-July 7, 1996
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., July 27-October 6, 1996
I can still remember the phone call from Phoebe Jacobs, trying to interest the Queens Museum in organizing an exhibition about the jazz musician Louis Armstrong. For almost thirty years Armstrong had lived in a modest house in Corona, Queens, about a mile from the museum. Phoebe was the vice president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, then in the process of turning over Armstrong's house and collections to Queens College.
Given Armstrong's incredible stature today, it's hard to believe how little recognition he received in the 1980s. Most Americans associated him with the television appearances he made toward the end of his life, where he seemed like a relic of some distant age. It took Phoebe several phone calls to convince me to do the exhibition. I'm glad she did. Appropriately enough, it was Armstrong's rendition of "When You Wish upon a Star" that clinched the deal for me, and made Phoebe's dream come true. Walt Disney was an important figure at the Queens Museum because of his involvement in the 1964 New York World's Fair, so I couldn't pass up a chance copy of Armstrong's album Disney Songs the Satchmo Way. Soon enough, my turntable was taken over by Armstrong's huge discography, from the Hot Five to the All Stars.
It took me several attempts to persuade the museum: they didn't see how Armstrong fit within their mission of exhibiting visual art. Mindful of this, I proposed an exhibition that would tell Armstrong's life story by combining documentary photographs, ephemera, and memorabilia with fine art that more broadly expressed the spirit of jazz and the importance of African-American culture. Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy got major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. We teamed up with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) to travel it to seven venues, including the National Portrait Gallery and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Armstrong had been a consummate pack rat, saving scrapbooks, photographs, records, tapes, letters, manuscripts, instruments, and awards, all of which I browsed through in unmarked boxes at the Santini Brothers warehouse. He was also a compulsive creator of collages, working with whatever photographs and scraps of paper surrounded him. These personal materials were displayed in the exhibition alongside a selection of fine art. In those days, before the art world emphasized inclusivity and multi-culturalism, it was easy to borrow major works by African-American artists, many of which were either out of sight in museum storage or for sale in galleries eager to promote them. The Armstrong exhibition featured photographs by Arthur P. Bedou, Villard Paddio, and Gordon Parks and art by Archibald Motley, Jr., Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. There were also works by Jules Pascin, Stuart Davis, Irving Penn, Ben Shahn, and many others. In the exhibition's last room, a specially made film summarized Armstrong's remarkable achievements and inspiring life story, with a soundtrack of Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." More than one person left the museum wiping away tears.
Curating the exhibition was a formative experience for me. I became increasingly aware that my worldview, liberal though it was, was limited by my race. As an African-American, Armstrong had confronted the realities of racism on a daily basis, an experience that infused all aspects of his life and work. I was greatly helped by a number of advisers, who contributed to the exhibition and its catalogue: Richard A. Long, who wrote about Armstrong and African-American culture; Donald Bogle, who wrote about Armstrong on film; and jazz historian Dan Morgenstern.
Especially important was the scholar Albert Murray, brought in by SITES project director Marquette Foley. During meetings at his apartment in Harlem, Murray showed me how inextricable African-American culture is from American culture, as well as Armstrong's particular role in this broad history. Another proponent of this view was Wynton Marsalis, who, with Murray and others, had recently founded Jazz at Lincoln Center. For Marsalis, jazz was America's great art form, and Armstrong the key figure in its development. The Armstrong exhibition at the Queens Museum coincided with a widely publicized Armstrong series at Jazz at Lincoln Center. By the time Queens College opened the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in 2003, no one doubted Armstrong's status as one of America's cultural giants.
One of my favorite objects in the Armstrong show was E. Simms Campbell's 1932 nightclub map of Harlem. I would recall it later on, when Jo Ann Jones, the director of the performance venue Flushing Town Hall, recruited me to curate a series of jazz exhibitions. Besides Armstrong, the borough of Queens had been (and still was) home to countless jazz musicians. In conjunction with an exhibition on the bassist Milt Hinton—then the senior figure of the borough's jazz community—we published an illustrated map, like Campbell's, showing Queens musicians' homes and hangouts.
The Queens Jazz Trail map drew attention to a previously ignored world of celebrity. Flushing Town Hall set up bus tours to trace its paths, and a rush of press ensued. British travel journalists selected the map as an honorable mention for the year's best new tourist initiative. Years later, it helped lead to the land-marking of Addisleigh Park, the ten-block area in St. Albans, Queens, where Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, James Brown, Milt Hinton, and many, many others lived. The map became the starting point for my next enterprise, Ephemera Press, a small company that published illustrated cultural maps of New York City neighborhoods.