Perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring facts about Ricky Riccardi, who directs research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum Collection in Queens, is that he never argued with his parents.
Not once. “Why would I fight with these people?” his wife, Margaret, remembers him saying on their first date. “They supported me. They give me everything. I wasn’t going to make their life hard!”
Riccardi was the youngest child in what he describes as a “big, loving Italian family,” in Tom’s River, New Jersey — coddled by parents who indulged his every whim. Thank goodness his whims led to a loving and careful exploration of the life and music of Louis Armstrong, who’s been his focus of study from the age of 15.
Riccardi was about that age in 1995, when he attended his first concert — The Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City. “Maybe less than a year later, I was in New York with my parents on a day trip,” he recalls. “ We were at the Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center and there was a big advertisement: Lincoln Center was having a “Who Was Jelly Roll Morton? — Jazz for Young People” concert. It was starting in a half hour across the street from Lincoln Center and so they just rushed me over there to Alice Tully Hall and that was my first time seeing (Jazz at Lincoln Center Musical) Wynton Marsalis and all that. In 1997, they did a Sidney Bechet concert … and that was like a big event for me.”
Riccardi says that by then he already had a researcher’s mind. There was always music in his household and he’d begun asking his parents to take him to find sheet music from the 1920s and 30s. Fast forward to high school and Rutgers University announced a new master’s degree program in jazz history and research.
“Right then it became clear, Riccardi says. “I needed to do whatever it takes to get into that program, write a book and become a well-paid jazz historian. What could go wrong?”
It took community college, a long series of hosting jazz programs on local radio, countless jazz columns for the school newspaper, learning jazz piano, joining a jazz trio and years of house painting to support his efforts, which increasingly became focused on Armstrong. He now has that master’s degree from Rutger’s.
Armstrong study demands deep listening AND reading. “The works of Dan Morgenstern and Gary Giddens cannot be overestimated,” Riccardi says. “Dan Morgenstern knew him and so Dan would write this personal take like, ‘All right, there is the man.’ Gary, with his 1988 book, “Satchmo,” was the first to have access to Armstrong’s personal writings and the materials, which became the archive — which I now run. Early on, just by leaning on those two, I got a sense that this was a very deep man.”
And yet, Riccardi couldn’t fathom Armstrong’s many critics. “I watched videos of this guy and listened to the recordings and I laughed and I felt joy and felt good and appreciated the genius. How can anybody else see that and be filled with resentment? ‘He’s letting down his race.’ ‘He’s letting down jazz.’ ‘He’s letting down entertainment.’ I wanted to fully explore what makes a person think like that. I think I understand. I just totally disagree and I have based my life on it. I disagree.”
In 2009, Riccardi joined the Louis Armstrong House Museum staff to digitize the archive’s extraordinary collection of reel-to-reel tapes, which document Armstrong’s daily life. And the next year, he carved out a singular niche among Armstrong biographers by publishing “What a Wonderful World — The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.” Riccardi is now working on a book that delves into when Armstrong middle years. “Nothing will ever quite change my love for Louis’s later years and I still feel like people take those years for granted,” he wrote to us recently. “But digging into the middle years now, it seems that these years don’t even exist for many jazz people. Everyone has an opinion on the pre-1929 stuff (great!) and the post-1947 stuff (commercial crap!) but there’s this middle period that kind of never gets explored. And I have been doing so much deep research and really realizing that these years are really the years when Louis became a superstar.”
In the world of Armstrong-philes, Riccardi is reaching his own form of super-stardom. We’re looking forward to the book.