“A Little Story of My Own”: Armstrong and Collage

When he passed, Louis Armstrong left behind a collection of more than 750 reel to reel tapes, which have now found their home in the archives of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The audio content of this collection is priceless, ranging from conversations between friends and family, recordings of Louis playing along with records and the radio, mix tapes of his favorite music, and Louis playing disc jockey with his own record collection. This collection contains more than priceless audio, however; it is also the primary canvas for one of Armstrong’s other hobbies–collage.

(1)Box 1987.3.45 Back (box 045 back)
Louis and Lucille Armstrong on the left and a man wearing a Velma Middleton necktie on the right.
LAHM 1987.3.45

The inspiration for collage might have come during a 1949 trip to Italy. Listen as Armstrong tells producer George Avakian about his experience in the home of an Italian countess.

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LAHM 1993.1.1

After this initial inspiration, Armstrong reinvented the process for himself. In a letter to Marili Mardon from September 27, 1953, Armstrong writes “my hobbie is to pick out the different things during what ever I read and piece them together and make a little story of my own…Of course, it,s not an awful lot to send to a person..But somethimes [sic], the spirit of a thing can mean so much…” 

LAHM 1987.9.12

Armstrong used a wide variety of materials to make his collages. His favorite method involved using scotch tape as a preservation tool. He described his process in a 1956 interview in Benton Harbor, MI with Joe Jeru.

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LAHM 1987.3.14
High Society collage
LAHM 1987.3.171

In addition to scotch tape, Armstrong also used masking tape and athletic tape as frames in his collages. Armstrong didn’t date his tapes or collages, but the athletic tape is a useful dating tool as Armstrong only used it on collages he either created or altered between 1969 and 1971.

LAHM 1987.3.352
LAHM 1987.3.93
He preserved a packet of his favorite laxative–Swiss Kriss!
LAHM 1987.3.376
Louis at home in his den c. 1970.
LAHM 1987.3.462

The type of tape predominately used, in addition to the date of the collage content are the best way to date the collages. Here are a few more of our favorite collages from his collection.

Velma Middleton on the left and a rare photo of Louis and Duke Ellington on the right, autographed, “To Gizzard, From Gate.”
LAHM 1987.3.440
A personalized blessing from Pope Paul VI, creatively rearranged by Louis in 1969
LAHM 1987.3.348
A quartet of Armstrongs!
LAHM 1987.3.461
A repurposed Valentine’s Day card
LAHM 1987.3.108
Rare color photo of the Armstrong House in the 1950s in the top right, Jack Teagarden singing in the lower right.
LAHM 2003.197.12

Armstrong didn’t exclusively collage his tape boxes, though that is the format by which the largest number survive. He also decorated multiple scrapbooks, most notably a 1952 volume that is filled with elaborate collages. The two examples below feature people Louis admired, including one devoted entirely to Jackie Robinson.

Louis surrounded by Florence Mills, Bunny Berigan, Bix Beiderbecke, Judy Garland, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Big Sid Catlett, Jack Teagarden, Ruth Brown and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with mentor Joe “King” Oliver placed directly in the center of his brain.
LAHM 1987.8.20
LAHM 1987.8.20

During the last few years of his life, Louis returned to creating or adding collages into two of his scrapbooks from 1969-70. 

LAHM 1987.8.52
LAHM 1987.8.53
LAHM 1987.8.53
LAHM 1987.8.54

They’re present in his tape indexes…

LAHM 1987.2.22
LAHM 1987.2.22

…and even on the walls of his den!

Photo by Bert Goldblatt
LAHM 2016.2.1
Photo by Charles Graham
LAHM 2004.6.5

The archives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum also have boxes of collage materials. These could be leftovers, possibly from when Lucille remodeled his den in 1960 and he was forced to take down the wall collages, or they could be extras, prepped and ready for a future collage. 

Al “Jazzbo” Collins stands behind Louis and Lucille.
LAHM 1987.14.3236
LAHM 1987.14.3271
LAHM 1987.14.3343
LAHM 1987.14.3426B

The last few years of Armstrong’s life were some of the most active for his tape and collage collection. Even though there isn’t a connection between the audio content of the tapes and the collages, we can learn a lot about what was on his mind during this time from studying both (keep an eye on this site for an exhibit that focuses only on those years!). In parting, here’s his last collage:

LAHM 1987.3.471

Published by Sarah Rose

Archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

2 thoughts on ““A Little Story of My Own”: Armstrong and Collage

  1. I loved. hearing Louis stand up for himself.It’s what I always attempt to do while giving my tours of his house. Thanks for sharing

  2. Man, these collages are super cool. How do you keep them preserved? I would imagine the tape he used died out over time. Also – I have an old box of Swiss Kriss I picked up at a sidewalk sale. Wonder if it’s still good….?????

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