A jazz trumpeter who had 50 years of hit songs, dozens of jazz standards, 30 films, and a legion of fans, Louis Armstrong most enjoyed coming home to Queens and playing his trumpet for the local kids, teaching them about music and his life. Now you, too, can visit his home and learn about his music, life and legacy.
Born on Aug. 4, 1901, Armstrong grew up in an area of New Orleans so rough that it was nicknamed “The Battlefield.” He lived in stark poverty with his mother and sister, and left school at the age of 7 to work odd jobs such as delivering coal and selling newspapers. (He later attended school intermittently through the fifth grade.) Armstrong was jailed in 1912 for firing a pistol in the street to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but it was while he was in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys that he received his first music lesson.
Sixty years later, he had far-reaching influence in the worlds of music and cinema, major sociopolitical events of the 20th century, and American pop culture at large. Although he toured extensively, he was always glad to come back to northeast Corona, where he and his wife, Lucille, had established their permanent home base in 1943. (Lucille decided they should settle in Queens because she hailed from that borough.)
Upon their deaths, Lucille willed the modest little frame house on 107th Street to the city, which deemed it a national landmark.
In 2003, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, an organization created to promote and preserve Armstrong’s legacy, decided to convert the house into a museum, because there continues to be so much interest in the jazz musician.
“Long after he passed away, fans kept showing up [to the house],” says Deslyn Dyer, the museum’s assistant director.
The main draw of the museum is the hourly guided tours, during which visitors can see rooms and furnishings left untouched since the Armstrongs were residents: a Chinese-inspired, red, lacquer bench in the dining room; knickknacks from around the world; a streamlined kitchen, in which the cabinets were finished in a vibrant turquoise; and a bathroom where the ceiling and walls are covered in mirrors.
Visitors can also hear audio clips of Louis’s vast personal collection of home recordings, in which he practices the trumpet or chats with friends. These recordings — which encompass some 1,200 hours of reel-to-reel tape — make up a fraction of the museum’s collection. Armstrong was an avid amateur historian; he enjoyed keeping extensive records about the details of his life and time, which is evident through the 86 scrapbooks, 5,000 photographs, 120 awards and plaques, five trumpets, and innumerable papers, letters and manuscripts all found in the house.
“[Louis Armstrong] was the original archivist of the house,” says Dyer. “Before the house was even designated as a museum, Louis had already done a lot of the work for us, as far as record-keeping and organization of media and other materials. We were…already sitting on a gold mine of stuff.”
Approximately 5,000 schoolchildren visit the museum annually, and the majority of visitors are families. The museum’s longest-running and most successful program to date, “Pops is Tops,” is an annual concert series held in May, during which more than 1,600 kids from all over Queens listen to jazz bands perform in the Japanese-themed garden adjacent to the house. Every Fourth of July, the day which Armstrong was originally thought to have been born, the museum hosts a free, open-to-the-public birthday party in honor of the jazz great. And during the annual Halloween party, there are tours and costume prizes awarded every hour. (But any child who shows up dressed as Armstrong receives an automatic prize!)
For all the places he saw and the people he met in his lifetime, what Louis Armstrong most enjoyed was spending time at home and teaching others about his music and life, just as the Louis Armstrong House Museum continues to do today.
Louis Armstrong House Museum [34-56 107th St. in Corona, (718) 478-8274]. Open Tuesday through Friday 10 am-5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 12-5 pm. The 40-minute guided tours start every hour on the hour, with the last tour at 4 pm. $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, children and groups. Children under 4 and members free. For more information, visit www.louisarmstronghouse.org.
Mary Carroll Wininger is a writer based in New York City. She is a frequent contributor on topics ranging from etiquette to feng shui.