[Dixielandjazz] Ricky Riccardi interviewed
rsr at ringwald.com
Sat Jun 25 11:03:11 PDT 2011
Ricky Riccardi interviewed
by Tammy La Gorce
New York Times, June 26, 2011
TOMS RIVER, N.J. -- When Ricky Riccardi earned a master's degree in jazz history
and research from Rutgers University in Newark in 2005, he had trouble finding work
in what he acknowledged was an extremely narrow field: studying and writing about
Louis Armstrong, his thesis subject. So he reverted to a job he had held every summer
since his sophomore year in high school, painting for his father's company, Riccardi
and Sons, of Toms River.
Within a few years, though, he was able to put down his paintbrush. These days, Mr.
Riccardi, 30, is the author of a just-published book, "What a Wonderful World: The
Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years" (Pantheon), and the archivist at the Louis
Armstrong House Museum research archive at Queens College. The museum is hosting
a reservations-only book party for him at the Armstrong house in Corona on Sunday.
"Everything is going in the right direction for me lately," Mr. Riccardi said recently
from his home here. In addition to the book, which Mr. Riccardi will discuss on Tuesday
at Barnes and Noble in Howell, Mr. Riccardi and his wife, Margaret, welcomed their
second daughter this spring.
Although the baby may be more rewarding in the long run, the book, by Mr. Riccardi's
reckoning, took much longer to produce -- 15 years.
"The first time I heard a Louis Armstrong recording, I was 15," he said earlier by
telephone from the maternity ward of the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in
Neptune. That was in the film "The Glenn Miller Story." Soon after, his mother, Marilyn
Riccardi, took him to the Ocean County Library in Toms River, where he checked out
an Armstrong CD, "16 Most Requested Songs."
"Something clicked in my brain," he said. "I knew right then I wanted to immerse
myself in jazz and write a book about it."
Over the intervening years, he came to understand the persistence such an undertaking
would require, especially when it came to writing about Armstrong.
"He's still a superstar, which is part of why my agent and I kept getting rejected
at first," Mr. Riccardi said, while sitting in his basement office at home. "There's
just so much out there. People were like, 'Do we really need another Armstrong book?'"
Upstairs, his wife was looking after Melody Patricia, the newborn, and his mother
was watching the couple's older daughter, 2-year-old Ella (named for Ella Fitzgerald).
Half the room is dedicated to Armstrong, with shelves full of books and CDs, and
the other half to toddlerhood, with stacks of plastic toys and tiny chairs and tables.
A piano upstairs is littered with Armstrong music -- Mr. Riccardi occasionally performs
around the Shore, as a soloist or with a trio called Ricky Riccardi and the Goodfellas.
Mr. Riccardi said, however, that playing music was not his top priority; studying
it was. "I taught jazz history for a year as a student at Rutgers, and I envisioned
this ideal life of teaching jazz and playing piano on the side," he said. "But once
I graduated, I realized that jazz is a very small world, and it's pretty hard getting
a job that will let you make ends meet."
That led him back to painting, while in his downtime he started a blog, "The Wonderful
World of Louis Armstrong," in 2007, and refined the book he began writing as a student.
Eventually, he was satisfied enough to shop it around to agents. By 2008, he said,
"I was a painter with a book deal."
Soon, Armstrong enthusiasts from around the world were reading the blog and sending
him e-mails and bootleg recordings, Mr. Riccardi was getting invitations to speak
at jazz events, and the Armstrong museum offered him his current job, which includes
arranging and cataloging vast stores of Armstrong memorabilia. Despite the commute
-- he gets up at 4 a.m. to take a bus to New York, the subway and another bus, arriving
at Queens College at 7 -- he said, "It's a job I'll die at."
Or so goes his plan, anyway. Mr. Riccardi said the position was made possible through
a two-year grant that will expire in September, but he hopes he will be kept on.
A new contract might allow him to have more contact with staff researchers, he added,
and could also lead to another book.
"What a Wonderful World" concentrates mainly on the last 24 or 25 years of Armstrong's
life, Mr. Riccardi said. "Even though there's been a ton written, there's still so
much more," he said.
Mr. Riccardi said he was reassured and gratified by the response to the first book.
"There were times when I'd get a little shaky, thinking, Is this really going to
happen?" he said. "Should I maybe think about another career? I still can't believe
I'm not out somewhere sweating and rolling paint on soffits in Ocean County. The
dream has come true."
Ricky Riccardi will read from "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's
Later Years" on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, Lanes Mill Marketplace, 4831
Route 9, Howell; (732) 730-2838. For details on the book party at the Louis Armstrong
House Museum on Sunday at 2 p.m.: http://louisarmstronghouse.org/
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