New York Armstrong expert to screen rare footage of jazz great
BY JOHN WIRT | Special to The AdvocateJul 31, 2018 - 10:00 am
Ricky Riccardi is making his 10th annual pilgrimage to Satchmo SummerFest.
And as always, he comes bearing gifts.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Satchmo Legacy Stage in the New Orleans Jazz Museum, Riccardi, director of research collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, will present rare film footage of Louis Armstrong — arguably New Orleans’ most famous musician.
Riccardi’s “Video Pops” Friday program marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s late-career hit, “What a Wonderful World.” On Saturday and Sunday, “Video Pops” features highlights from Armstrong’s 1964 and 1970 guest-host appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show.”
Riccardi’s other SummerFest programs include a Sunday preview of the nearly completed, 100 percent digitalization of the Armstrong House Museum’s vast collections. A $2.7 million grant from the Fund II Foundation made the conversion possible.
“Satchmo SummerFest is our first public unveiling of the digitalization,” Riccardi said from his home in Toms River, New Jersey. “What better place than Satchmo SummerFest to spread the word?”
Riccardi’s debut at Satchmo SummerFest in 2008 helped make his career as an Armstrong archivist possible. At the time, despite his master’s degree in jazz history research from Rutgers University, he worked full-time as a house painter. In his spare time, Riccardi was seeking a publisher for his book about Armstrong and writing a blog about the beloved jazz great.
“The book was getting rejected left and right,” Riccardi remembered. “I figured I needed to do something. So, in 2007, I started a blog. Every day while I painted houses, I listened to Louis on my iPod. I heard things and make connections. Then I’d come home, kiss my wife hello and run to the computer and write about whatever discovery I’d made listening that day.”
Jazz fans, writers and scholars eventually found Riccardi’s Armstrong blog. One of them, Jon Pult, invited the young scholar to lecture at Satchmo SummerFest.
“Jon was looking for somebody new,” Riccardi said. “Dan Morgenstern (jazz writer and producer) gave me a big endorsement and Jon booked me.”
At the 2008 Satchmo SummerFest, the overwhelmed Riccardi found himself in the company of Morgenstern, Armstrong biographer Gary Giddins, Armstrong record producer George Avakian and Michael Cogswell, his future boss at the Armstrong House Museum.
“I was a deer in headlights,” Riccardi said. “But that festival was my coming-out party. By the end of it, my reputation had grown exponentially. Even though I back was painting houses the day after I flew home, things started falling into place.”
Shortly after the festival, Riccardi signed a deal with Pantheon Books for his Armstrong biography, “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years.” By October 2009, he was working for the Armstrong House Museum.
Riccardi’s first brush with Armstrong came with he was 15. Already a fan of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he saw Armstrong’s cameo appearance in “The Glenn Miller Story,” the James Stewart-starring biopic about the big band leader.
“In the middle of the movie, Louis Armstrong performs ‘Basin Street Blues,’ ” Riccardi said. “I fell in love with him. And his music reminded me of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I knew I wanted to hear more. His music moved me more than anything else. It just changed me as a person. The more I learned about his character and humanity and everything else, I knew this was going to be a lifetime study.”
Armstrong wasn’t always as esteemed as he is now. During the civil rights era, many saw him as more entertainer than the artist, innovator and jazz giant he is. Riccardi credits Wynton Marsalis, another trumpeter from New Orleans, with helping change that perception in the 1980s.
“Here’s this young African-American musician thanking Louis Armstrong on TV,” Riccardi said. “That would have been inconceivable in the previous 25, 30 years, when most young African-American musicians ran away from Armstrong.”
Gary Giddins’ 1988 Armstrong biography, “Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong,” and its companion documentary cast more light upon Armstrong’s importance.
“Giddins did not apologize for Armstrong being a showman or an entertainer,” Riccardi said. “And he had access to Armstrong’s private words, Armstrong being strong and defiant. Giddins’ book and documentary opened people’s eyes.”
In addition to Armstrong’s musical prowess, the embracing presence he projects on record and film keeps him relevant, Riccardi said.
“He always said a note is a note in any language,” Riccardi said. “People overseas who didn’t understand a word he sang responded to his warmth. They responded to his joy. And that’s what did he for me. When I was 15, he made me laugh, he made me feel good. That joy combined with being a musical virtuoso and a civil rights pioneer who conquered racism and poverty, all of these obstacles, makes him the quintessential 20th century icon.”
Intelligent, passionate, artistic.
These are just some of the words that came to John Strong’s mind when he thought of Paul Pines.
Pines, a Brooklyn native who lived in Glens Falls and developed roots and a festival in Lake George, passed away on Wednesday, June 27. Pines leaves a legacy in the North Country in the form of a jazz festival and his poetry and by bolstering the greater Glens Falls community.
Pines and Strong worked together for 35 years to set up and grow the Jazz at the Lake festival at Lake George. Throughout the years, Strong learned how special Pines’ talents were as a poet, writer, professor and psychotherapist.
Pines, 77, wrote several novels, a memoir and 13 poetry collections throughout his career and traveled all over. He was a merchant seaman in the mid-1960s near Vietnam, traveled to Mexico and Central America and loved the southern Adirondacks.
While at Lake George in 1984, he joined Strong in setting up the fall festival. Strong said the area had nothing going on at the time between the summer and winter seasons.
“We were one of the first groups to really acknowledge what a nice time of the year it is,” Strong said.
It was also during that inaugural year that Pines met his future wife, Carol. Strong said at the time Pines was back-and-forth between New York City and Lake George. He initially didn’t have plans to stay.
“It wasn’t me that kept him (at Lake George),” Strong joked.
Pines created strong roots in the area as he became a professor at SUNY Adirondack, hosted collaboration works at Glens Falls’ Charles R. Wood Theater and became a pivotal part of constructing a fall jazz festival that many mark down on their calendars.
Jazz at the Lake
Strong emphasized Pines’ ability to communicate with the artists he recruited for the Lake George jazz event. The duo would call each band or musician to help them set expectations of Lake George and create a bond with each of them.
The work was divided well by the two. Strong handled production, while Pines’ personality thrived in connecting with musicians and audiences. Pines would take the microphone for the Jazz at the Lake events and give a toss to the bands. Strong said Pines had a knack for setting up the mood for a band.
Pines would continually find new and old voices to put on another successful event, with Strong doing the background work.
“Many of these artists were either just below the radar or just coming out, and maybe a number of them are bona fide stars in the jazz world,” Strong said.
After year after year of setting up the festival, the two would find out that their traits complemented each other.
“Paul and I were really bonded over the years. We were a real team,” Strong said. “… He had the artistic vision to mold this into his take on jazz, which was very broad.”
Though Pines has passed, the 2018 Jazz at the Lake will continue. Strong does not know the longevity beyond this year’s event, however.
“We just haven’t had time to get together,” he said. “(Though) this year, we have the lineup all set and Paul has done that. Seven bands are coming September 15th and 16th. It’s hard to replace a guy who’s so passionate about the genre of jazz.”
Pines had a diverse background and was able to see the world. He matched that with his artistic looks.
Long hair, a blazer with a Panama hat and sunglasses and a strong, joyful grin, Pines did not stick with the status quo of a button-down and tie.
“He was a bohemian man,” Strong said. “He was a flat out bohemian. … He was a very cool cat.”
Strong complemented Pines in his intelligence, believing that many of his traits stemmed from it.
“He was a tremendously warm person. He had a superior intellect,” Strong explained. “His family was very well educated. Often, he had an eye out for people who affected him and might need some help. He was a professional counselor, among some of the other things he has done. He was very funny and very warm and witty.”
Strong wanted to thank the village and town of Lake George for their support of the Jazz at the Lake festival, where the duo grew from strangers to friends. To find out more about Pines, go to paulpines.com, a website that includes many of his writings, information on his books and other related info.
The Jazz at the Lake festival this fall will be at Shepard Park starting at 1 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16.
“But the impact he has made,” Strong said then paused, “it’s going to be challenging to live up to that. Just to have Paul’s insightfulness and how he conveys that to the audience, that’s going to be hard to replace.”
Funeral arrangements for Paul Pines will be handled by Singleton Sullivan Potter Funeral Home, 407 Bay Road, Queensbury. The Post-Star will publish a complete obituary at a later time.
Andrew David Kuczkowski is the education reporter. Andrew can be reached at 518-742-3354. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ByKuczkowski.