Armstrong’s Archive

We value archives because we value the life that preceded them. But artists are not perfectly self-aware, and they owe neither us, nor posterity, an explanation for what they value or what they choose to ignore. What always remains is the work, and then the archive…[1] — Thessaly La Force, The New York Times 

Before the opening of the Louis Armstrong Archives in 1994, Louis’ treasure trove or archive consisted of his second-floor den and the prized objects that he stored in that room. In his den, Armstrong would engage with his various “hobbies” such as writing, typing, listening to music, recording music, and making collages. The den is the last room visitors see on the guided house tour. After entering the space and hearing Louis’ unmistakable gravelly voice, one can begin to imagine him in the room — sitting at his desk, returning a decorated cover of a reel-to-reel tape to one of the wooden shelves, or grabbing an LP to play and record. When Lucille presented the den to Louis for the first time, he could not contain his excitement. He recalls: 

…Lucille fix something that I never had in my life before… She gave me a room and made a den out of it. You know what I mean, that-that that really knocked me out…. Now I got a den, I can look at all my tapes around the walls and just pick out what I want hear…She [Lucille] know that it would be my life and music…[2]

When Armstrong was alive, the den’s soundscape might have consisted of the clicking of typewriter keys, a ringing telephone, crackling records, and the crinkling of scotch tape. Today, the den’s soundscape consists of new noises such as the voice of a docent and the laughter of visitors. 

In 1950 Louis made his first reel-to-recording. He ended up with a collection of over 700 reel-to-reel tapes, many of which he made in his den or hotel rooms. His recordings captured other musicians’ music, talks with friends and neighbors, his rehearsals, interactions with fans, and interviews with media personnel. He decorated some 500 of his 700 tapes with newspaper clippings and photographs to “make little stories.” Louis, as an archivist, carried out his tasks with intention and care. While Louis created recordings in his den and various hotel rooms, he ended up conjuring his own “disembodied voice.” Scholar Miriama Young notes that the creation of a “disembodied voice” via technological media can be problematic. She states:

If the recording separates the artist’s voice from the body that speaks it, then the voice is no longer rooted in a particular time nor to a specific locale. At that point there occurs a loss of control of the artist’s body itself, as the sound of the voice enters the social realm of commodification in which recordings are bought, owned, shared and privately controlled.[3]

While professional recordings of Louis’ “disembodied voice” did enter the social realm of commodification, Louis’ private reel-to-reel recordings escaped this realm. Louis’ reel-to-reel tapes are a product of his making that he could control, and for him, their primary purpose was to document, not make money. 


Louis with a reel-to-reel recorder in a hotel room in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1957 

Bing Crosby, a friend of Louis, shared his interest in and facility with magnetic tape technology. American engineers who had learned of the Germans’ use of magnetic tape technology during WWII shared their discovery with Bing. He ended up investing in the American company Ampex, encouraging the employees to create a line of reel-to-reel recorders. Unlike previous sound-recording technologies that had wax cylinders, discs, or delicate wires, magnetic tape could be “cut and pasted, rearranged, and edited.”[4] In 1947, Bing became the first American entertainer to use Ampex’s magnetic tape technology for his radio broadcasts. Like Louis, Bing would also record himself. However, Bing favored his Dictabelts and would use them to dictate letters and memos.[5] Both Louis and Bing passed away before the onset of the digital age in 1982, Louis in 1971 and Bing in 1977. One can only imagine how they might have used today’s technology for archival, recording, and entertainment purposes. 

Thessaly la Force, a New York Times writer, states, “there are two questions surrounding artists and their archives. Why do artists keep them? And what is worth keeping?”[6] She points out that Andy Warhol deliberately kept one of his 1956 letters from the Museum of Modern Art, leading her to conclude that ego must play a part in answering the two questions she posed. Anyone who has studied Louis will know that ego was not the reason he created an archive. Michael Cogswell, who was responsible for transforming Louis’ collection into a scholarly archive, once stated, “I guess the big story of these archives is that there is no big story…Louis Armstrong comes alive as the man we saw and heard, open and generous, a down-to-earth genius. It wasn’t an act.”[7] When it comes to Armstrong, what remains is both the work and the archive. 


[1] Thessaly La Force,” What Should An Artist Save?” The New York Times, August, 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/t-magazine/artist-archives.html.

[2] Transcription from Louis’ reel-to-reel tapes, Reel-to-reel tape given to Louis Armstrong – LAHM Tape 3-8 – Track 2, February 20, 1965, Object ID: 1987.3.667, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1111067, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[3] Mariama Young, Singing the Body Electric: The Human Voice and Sound Technology, Farnham, England: Ashgate, 27.

[4] Paul Ford, “How Bing Crosby and the Nazis Helped Create Silicon Valley,” The New Yorker, May 8, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-bing-crosby-and-the-nazis-helped-to-create-silicon-valley/.

[5] “Bing Crosby’s Innovations in Technology,” PBS, December 2, 2014, https://www.pbs.org/video/american-masters-bing-crosbys-innovations-technology/.

[6] La Force, “What Should An Artist Save?”

[7] Michael K. Kaufman, “An Archive of Louis and Jazz,” The New York Times, May 25, 1994, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/music/052594armstrong-archives.html.  

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