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.”