For the Love of Louis Armstrong: A Tale of Three Jazzers

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

In 1959, Jack Bradley, a young photographer from Cape Cod—Cotuit, to be exact—moved to New York City and met the one and only Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Their connection was immediate and Bradley spent two decades photographing Armstrong, as well as a long list of jazz luminaries, including Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.

By the time Michael Persico, a jazz trombonist and retired music teacher at schools in Mashpee and Barnstable, met Bradley, the successful photographer had amassed more than 30,000 negatives and perhaps the largest collection of Armstrong memorabilia of anyone in the world. The two hit it off and became friends, but at first it was a working relationship.

Bradley with Armstrong

“Have you ever seen that show Hoarders?” Persico laughs, explaining that his job was to help Bradley tame his massive collections, which had become somewhat unwieldy. “I have gone through two 10-yard trailers, and that was only in the cellar. I haven’t even approached the attic yet, which I’m sure I’m going to find Jimmy Hoffa or somebody up there,” Persico jokes. He also doubled the size of the collection of Armstrong memorabilia at the Louis Armstrong Home Museum in Queens, New York, dedicated to the legendary trumpeter, when in 2006 they acquired his collection. According to the Museum’s website, the Jack Bradley Collection is “the world’s foremost private collection of Armstrong memorabilia,” and contained films, every commercially released recording, thousands of Bradley’s photographs, as well as other items.

Bradley was not only a well-regarded photographer and friend of the jazz legend. He was also a staunch Civil Rights supporter and, according to Persico, he is under consideration for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bradley was someone who took care to elevate others, not only himself, such as an underappreciated fellow photographer Maynard Frank Wolfe, whose work as a photojournalist in the 1960s for Time, Newsweek, and Life magazines he bought and preserved. Persico brought those images Wolfe had taken of Armstrong to the museum, as well.

Persico explains, “All the artists from the late 1950s, they were all like in the twilight of their careers, and Jack befriended Louie, who introduced him to everybody else. And he became quite intimate with all of them because he never asked for anything.”

The multi-generational connections between Armstrong, Bradley, and Persico came together just after Bradley passed away in 2021, in Persico’s combination photography exhibition/live storytelling event/traditional jazz concert series, Classic Jazz Visions, which comes to Provincetown Town Hall this Saturday night. Persico began writing it six years ago and it had its premiere in Bradley’s hometown at the Cotuit Center for the Arts earlier this year. The evening will feature Bradley’s photographs—many of which have never been seen before, both projected on a screen and mounted as prints for the audience to take in. And after the performance, Persico says it will be a real jazz club, with the dance floor open for dancing and good times.

Photo: Jack Bradley

“I just want to get the word out about this. I mean, this is not just for old people, this is for anybody,” Persico emphasizes. “[Traditional jazz] is happy music. I mean, even the blues has an uplifting thing to it, the hope. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to get through with this whole show. Louis Armstrong was about love. And Jack worshipped Louis. So, we’re just following in Jack’s footsteps. And I think it’s important for our cultural history.”

Classic Jazz Visions will be at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., on Saturday, September 10, 7 p.m. For tickets and information call 508.564.0681 or visit classicjazzvisions.org. Tickets also available at the door on the night of the show.