The Louis Armstrong House Museum, housed in the brick building in Corona, Queens, where the great jazz trumpeter lived for the last 28 years of his life, has just opened an exhibition of Armstrong memorabilia from the expansive collection of Jack Bradley, a sailor (and sometime jazz club owner and manager) who befriended Armstrong in 1959, and amassed what is said to be the world’s largest private collection of Armstrongiana. The museum acquired the collection in 2005, but only recently finished cataloging and preserving the materials, which it has never shown before. The exhibition runs through March 29.
Mr. Bradley, whom Armstrong called “my white son,” collected everything he could find that had anything to do with the trumpeter, including letters, handwritten set lists, posters and even laundry receipts. A centerpiece of the exhibition is a Giardinelli trumpet mouthpiece, made to Armstrong’s specification. The museum has another 15 mouthpieces.
“Jack was never obnoxious about his collecting,” Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s archivist, said in an interview. “And Louis appreciated that, so he had no problem giving him things like the mouthpiece when he was no longer using it.”
Mr. Bradley, who is now 80 and lives in Cape Cod, was also an avid photographer who took close to 8,000 pictures of Armstrong. One, in the museum’s show, captures Armstrong playing along with his 1954 recording of “Trees” two weeks before his death, on July 6, 1971. Another, taken backstage before a performance in 1968, is shot from behind, but shows Armstrong, reflected in a mirror, looking intently at his trumpet. And particularly striking is a photograph, taken at a party on May 26, 1970, in which Armstrong and Miles Davis are huddled together, smiling and chatting warmly.
“They were polar opposites in most ways,” Mr. Riccardi said, “but they respected each other. Louis loved Miles’s recordings, particularly the ones he made with Gil Evans. And although Miles, in his autobiography, was critical of Louis’ showmanship, he never said a bad word about his trumpet playing.”
Recordings feature prominently in the collection, naturally: Mr. Bradley had some 2,600 Armstrong discs. There is a framed 1924 recording of “One of These Days,” by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, in which Armstrong played at the time. The 78-r.p.m. disc, on the Regal label, is a rarity in its own right; the Armstrong autograph on Mr. Bradley’s copy makes it rarer still.
“When we acquired the collection, in 2005,” Mr. Riccardi said, “the agreement we had with Jack was that we would drive up to Cape Cod once a year, load a van with as much as we could fit, then give him a year to recuperate before we came back. That took us until 2010. But the first year we went, we took the recordings, and he thumbed through each one and told us stories about them.”
The collection, which has been appraised at $1 million, was acquired with a grant from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. The museum got a bargain: it paid only $500,000 for the collection.
“But we also have all of Louis’ own things – his photos, his trumpets, his reel-to-reel tapes,” Mr. Riccardi said. “So while I’m sure Jack could have got more money elsewhere, I don’t think about that. Having his collection here at Louis’ house, together with Louis’ things, just seems right.”
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