Michael Cogswell, a jazz archivist and historian who took the lead in turning Louis Armstrong’s modest home into the Louis Armstrong House Museum, a cherished New York institution and a site of pilgrimage, died on Monday. He was 66.
His wife, Dale Van Dyke, said the cause was complications from bladder cancer, in an announcement on his Facebook page.
Cogswell was the founding Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, which also posted a note about his death. “During Cogswell’s tenure at the museum,” reads a portion of the statement, “what was originally a stack of 72 shipping cartons filled with Louis Armstrong’s vast personal collection of home-recorded tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia was transformed into a monumental research archives, eventually holding eleven collections of Armstrong material. The collections are routinely accessed by scholars, public school students, journalists, record producers, and many more.”
Located on 107th Street in Corona, Queens, the museum has earned its reputation as both a historical landmark and a house of wonders. It’s routinely featured in the mainstream press, most recently with an article about its virtual exhibitions in The Washington Post. And it has become a clearinghouse for all things Armstrong, like the rare 16-millimeter footage of Armstrong in a studio that made international news — as “a groundbreaking discovery,” via Cogswell’s assessment— in 2016.
In his 2003 book Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story, Cogswell succinctly describes how the Armstrongs came to live in the modest two-story house in Corona: “Louis lived out of a suitcase — he was typically on the road more than 300 days per year — and had no interest in owning a home. Lucille — who had spent some of her childhood in Queens — discovered the house, purchased it, and decorated it without Louis ever having seen it.”
Cogswell was the driving force behind its conversion from a private residence into a public resource. Having been hired by Queens College in 1991 to catalog and preserve the Louis Armstrong Archives, he was charged several years later with the task of opening the house as a museum.
Along with a gargantuan organizational task — given Armstrong’s prodigious affinities for home recording, letter-writing and the amassing of ephemera — this assignment presented a more delicate challenge: how to capture the soulful eccentricity of the place without seeming to violate a trust? The solution, which suited Cogswell’s personality, was a combination of scholarly attention and fathomless care and respect.
Michael Cogswell was born on Sept. 30, 1953, in Buffalo, N.Y., but largely raised in Fairfax County, Va. His father, Charles Lamburn Cogswell, was a marketing consultant who had been a Brigadier General in the Marine Corps; his mother, Margaret Hoyt Cogswell, was a homemaker.
While at North Texas, where he created the first master’s in jazz history by combining jazz studies courses with a musicology program, Cogswell focused on the jazz avant-garde. “He submitted a terrific piece about Ornette Coleman’s music to the Annual Review of Jazz Studies,” Dan Morgenstern, executive director emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, tells WBGO. “After we published this piece, I was asked to come down to North Texas for a panel. We met, and had lunch together. At the time, he was fascinated by Pharoah Sanders, so that’s what we were talking about.”
Lewis Porter, founder and former director of Rutgers-Newark’s Master’s in Jazz History and Research, says that Cogswell’s stewardship of the Armstrong Archives helped turn him into an unimpeachable Armstrong authority. “He proved to be a remarkable director in every way,” Porter says. “Under his guidance, the house and the collection became world-famous, the subject of news stories in Newsweek (when Hillary Clinton came to visit), The New York Times, and of course all the jazz press. He did an unbelievable job at fundraising, culminating in groundbreaking in the spring of 2017 of an entire new building that will locate the archive and a performance center right across the street from the house.”
In addition to his wife, Cogswell is survived by two brothers, Dr. Frank B. Cogswell and Col. Charles H. Cogswell.
In 2018, due to his health problems, Cogswell retired as executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. “As founding Director, with 27 years of service,” he wrote in his announcement, “I have performed every task from mopping the floor and repairing the pump in the fish pond to composing multi-million dollar grant proposals and producing and emcee-ing the annual gala.”
Cogswell’s friend and protégé Ricky Riccardi stayed on as lead archivist for the organization, but the director job went to an outsider, Kenyon Victor Adams. Last July, after serving for six months, Adams resigned, citing “the intractable opposition of the staff and board to the Armstrong NOW vision.” (The current acting director of the organization is Jeff Rosenstock.)
The Armstrong house is administered by Queens College under a long-term licensing agreement with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, which received it as a gift from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation after Lucille Armstrong’s death in 1983.
“The house had been in a state of neglect,” Morgenstern says. “Nobody had really done anything that should have been done. But Michael did. He went into this with such dedication and enthusiasm — and love, yes, I think that’s the right word. He just turned the whole thing around.”