In the heart of Queens, in Corona, New York stands a house filled with the spirit of Louis Armstrong—a significant, perhaps the most significant jazz artist in the history of jazz. Though a long-time fan and a resident of Queens, I had never visited the house until a few weeks ago. I learned that Armstrong and his wife Lucile—a dancer who Armstrong met while working at the Cotton Club made their home in a working class neighborhood filled with warmth, friendship and love. Decorated by Lucille and donated on her death to the city, the house welcomes visitors interested in the man and his music, a man who began life in the Storyville District of New Orleans in 1901 and left school by the fifth grade to sing in the streets, hawk newspapers and deliver coal before he became the first important improvisational jazzman to perform both on an instrument and as a vocalist.
Known as “Satchmo” to his fans, he loved to record—reels of tape were used during his day—and his voice is heard as you tour the comfortable two story building. Drawn to music at an early age, he bought a cornet with the help of a family he did odd jobs for named Karnofsky who had a junk hauling business. Armstrong taught himself to play and began playing with a casual group of musicians.
He developed his skills playing in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he had been sent for delinquency—he had fired his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration. At the home he learned discipline and musical training from Professor Peter Davis. The band performed around New Orleans beginning Armstrong’s adventures in music. He played in brass bands and on riverboats and matured as a musician—by the age of twenty he began to do featured trumpet solos and to use his voice.
Invited to join Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, Armstrong landed in Chicago. Oliver’s jazz band was one of the most prominent in the windy city and Armstrong could make a high enough income to afford his own apartment with his own private bath (his first.) He arrived in New York City in 1924 and was soon playing with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra—the foremost African-American orchestra during this period—and switched his instrument to the trumpet.
As his music and reputation developed, his singing became more and more important. His recordings became hits—he improvised and used his voice as ingeniously as he used his trumpet. He played and sang with the top people of his day—Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Bessie Smith, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich—the list of talents goes on and on. In 1964, he recorded the song, “Hello Dolly” and it climbed to number one—the top of the charts and won the Grammy for the best male vocal performance and in 1969 he appeared in the motion picture version of the show.
On one wall of Armstrong’s home studio is a portrait painted by his friend Tony Bennett. Armstrong told him he was the new Rembrandt.
Concerts are held in the Japanese Inspired Garden, designed by Lucille, and soon the Museum will expand with a Visitors Center right across the street that will include an exhibit gallery, archival center and performance space. This summer jazz will be heard in the garden on warm summer days.