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June 8, 2006

TT: Wonderland

New Yorkers with cars go crazy when it rains, which it did all day Wednesday. It took me well over an hour to drive the thirteen miles from my Upper West Side apartment to the Louis Armstrong Archives, located on the first floor of the Queens College library. I sedated myself by listening to an advance copy of If You Have to Ask, You Ain't Got It, a three-disc Fats Waller anthology coming out later this summer from Bluebird/Legacy, but I still experienced periodic flashes of road rage along the way. Accidents, construction sites, vicious cabbies, psychotic bike messengers, suicidal pedestrians--you name it, I saw it, and in several cases barely missed it.

No sooner did I arrive at the Armstrong Archives, though, than I forgot my troubles. I spent the whole day going through three of Louis Armstrong's scrapbooks. He started keeping them in the late Twenties, right around the time that his career was taking off. They're a mixture of snapshots and newspaper and magazine clippings, and anyone with the slightest interest in his life and work would find them fascinating. I effortlessly uncovered one nugget after another, including his first appearances in Walter Winchell's column and The New Yorker. (If you should ever have occasion to use The Complete New Yorker for research, by the way, be warned that the anonymous compilers neglected to include "Goings On About Town" in their computerized index!)

Not surprisingly, the scrapbooks are perilously fragile, and they have yet to be scanned, so anyone who uses them has to put on a pair of protective white gloves and handle them with the utmost care. I found it impossible to type with the gloves on, meaning that I had to take them off in order to make notes, then put them on again each time I turned a page. It was a nuisance, but it was also a small price to pay. To be sure, microfilm and its successor technologies are (mostly) unmixed blessings, but any scholar can tell you that there's no substitute, emotionally speaking, for handling the thing itself, be it a scrapbook or a holograph manuscript. Though constant use has drained the word awesome of much of its meaning, I don't know any other way to describe what it feels like to turn the crumbling pages of the personal scrapbooks of the greatest of all jazz musicians. How amazing that such things exist--and that they've been made accessible to researchers.

The archive closes at four p.m., so at 3:55 I reluctantly packed up my iBook, unfurled my umbrella, and headed for the parking lot to collect my Zipcar and return to Manhattan. The traffic was even worse going back, but it didn't bother me nearly as much the second time around. I was too busy thinking about how fortunate I am to be spending my spare time, such as it is, writing the biography of a man who was both good and great.

An hour and a half later I dropped off the car at the neighborhood garage, then met a friend for dinner at Calle Ocho, just around the corner from my apartment. We ate and talked and enjoyed ourselves enormously, and when we were done I walked back to the tiny little apartment-museum in which I live, somewhat soggy from the day-long downpour but happy all the same. I put on a Louis Armstrong record to warm myself up and beamed at the familiar sound of his sunny, gravel-choked voice:

Boy, you the lucky guy.
When you consider the highest bidder
Can't buy the gleam in your eye,
You the lucky guy.

That I am.

P.S. The next time you need a fast-acting dose of good cheer, listen to Fats Waller's "Loungin' at the Waldorf." It's infallible.

Posted June 8, 2006 12:00 PM

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