In 1997, Aldo Mancusi presided over a gala event honoring Enrico Caruso. In 2018, in the dining-room-turned-tiny-theater of the Caruso Museum, we watched selected bits on a (literal) videotape. It was downright weird to see then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani deliver a thoughtful, erudite, witty speech unveiling a proclamation in honor of Caruso and Aldo’s museum.
And it made me wonder, what made late ’90s Giuliani transform into today’s Giuliani? They seem so different from one another.
Of all the random museums I’ve visited during this project, the Enrico Caruso Museum is surely, surely the randomest. Sorry, Mossman Lock Collection, you’re now #2. The Caruso Museum has been on my list from the very start, but I’ve kind of been saving it. I understood that it was the project of an obsessive collector, an elderly Italian gent, who kept it in his apartment, which he opened to the public on Sundays by appointment.
That’s a little disconcerting, in the way that all obsessions–and obsessives–can be. “I’m gonna call you before I go in,” I joked to a friend. “If you don’t hear from me in an hour, alert the authorities!” Continue reading “Enrico Caruso Museum”
This place feels so real. It’s like Louis and Lucille Armstrong just left the room to get you an iced tea, and they’ll be back in a jiffy. Nothing is labeled, no velvet ropes. The Armstrongs’ iron (or very good facsimile) still sits in their closet. I strongly suspect their air conditioners cool some of the rooms. More than any other house museum I’ve visited so far, this place still feels like a home.
A riddle: If Louis Armstrong were a superhero (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), what would he call his souped up vehicle for patrolling the streets of Gotham?
A: The SATCHMOBILE.
Actually the Satchmobile is the name of the official van of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Louis Armstrong practically invented jazz. He played all over the world, made a bajillion records, sang songs that everyone knows. And when he wasn’t doing all that, from 1943 until the day he died he and his wife Lucille lived in a modest three-story brick house in the Corona area of Queens. They entertained generations of neighborhood kids, Louis made tape recordings of himself (he was sort of a tape diarist), and generally lived far more quietly than you’d expect from a jazz superhero.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971. Lucille lived for another 12 years, until 1983. They never had kids. And the house, pretty much exactly as it was when Lucille died, passed into the hands of the city. Queens College manages the place, and they lovingly restored and opened it in 2003 as the best house museum I’ve seen so far.
You can only enter the house on guided tours, but my gods, it feels just like you’re visiting the Armstrongs. The group (nine people joined my tour on a random Saturday afternoon) goes right up the front steps, rings the musical door chime, and proceeds on their visit, which explores every room in the house, down to the breakfast nook.
The management frowns on photos. I cheated once, to take a picture of Louis Armstrong’s infinitely mirrored bathroom. I wondered if Yayoi Kusama ever visited the Armstrongs. Or took this tour…
Here are some of the things I managed to resist photographing:
Louis’s wood paneled den with its fabulous bar (there is still alcohol in his bar. Drambuie.) and fabulous reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The Armstrongs’ bedroom with its wild silver wallpaper.
The amazing 50s kitchen. Bright blue, enameled, curvy cabinetry, custom sub-zero fridge, everything built in. Paper towels stored in their own wall cubby. They even had a blender built into their countertop. Lucille and her kitchen designer were geniuses!
Their white upright piano, which neither of them could play, but looked good in the living room.
Four green ashtrays shaped like the suits from a deck of cards.
Art from a lifetime of world travels.
Okay, I wanted to take pictures of everything.
But I could not resist the bathroom. I apologize, Louis Armstrong House Museum folks.
The Louis Armstrong House uses sound, but unexpectedly it doesn’t play a lot of music. Rather, during the tour, the guide periodically plays bits of recordings of Armstrong talking about the house and his life. In his den, there’s a portrait of him by Tony Bennett (!), and Louis talks about that–how he signed it “Benedetto.” Letting the man speak for himself in his own home works incredibly well.
A Few Other Things
The entry to the Louis Armstrong House and its gift shop is in their former garage.
From the garage you proceed to a small exhibit area, in what used to be his rec room. Where he played poker with Dizzy Gillespie. (His poker table is on display upstairs.) I like to think of it as the Satch-cave.
Look at these stairs! And the wallpaper!
Currently there’s a display commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inescapable, somewhat saccharin (to my taste) “What a Wonderful World.” Not a hit when first released, the film “Good Morning Vietnam” rediscovered the song and set it on its path toward ubiquity. But Louis said whenever he sang it, it reminded him of Corona.
You can also see Armstrong’s bathrobe and slippers, life mask, and suitcases. And one of his trumpets. And three pages he wrote about his joy living in the neighborhood. I got the sense that even if someone had offered them, say, Andrew Carnegie’s mansion, he and Lucille would’ve stayed right where they were.
The most unexpected thing about the house is the Armstrongs bought the lot next door and made it into an expansive garden, with pine trees, a little lawn, a tiny koi pond, and a bar and barbecue. In this one place, I felt a legendary musician exerting some star power. They only built the garden in 1970, so just a year before Armstrong died. Better late than never.
I sat there for a while playing in my head what I’ll get to say when someone asks me what I was up to today. “Oh, not much. Sat in Louis Armstrong’s garden reading a magazine for a bit.”
The Louis Armstrong House experience will soon change significantly. A vacant lot across the street (where they currently park the Satchmobile) is going to get a spiffy new building that will greatly increase the museum’s ability to tell Louis and Lucille’s story. I think that’s wonderful — though I wonder if the neighbors on this quiet block agree.
But even as they’re able to show off more of their collection, I sincerely hope that the house stays just exactly the way it is. It is an amazing monument to the talent, humility, and soul of one of the great figures in the history of music.
You can build museums to jazz (not saying you can succeed, but you can try). You can memorialize great concert performances in museum form. You can digitize music and tell its story through touchscreens and headphones. But nothing you can possibly do will bring you closer to Louis Armstrong than visiting his house in Corona, Queens.
Meanwhile, somebody please write a Justice League-style comic book featuring the Superheroes of Jazz battling the forces of squareness.
A poster of the famous Esquire Magazine jazz family portrait, taken on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone. The museum doesn’t say much about the creation of the picture, but the 1995 documentary “A Great Day in Harlem” covers it well.
Hey there, daddy-o, if you’re a swingin’ hep cat and you dig the syncopated sounds of America’s native musical form, have I got a museum for you!
Actually, I don’t. I went to the Jazz Museum skeptical but hopeful, and ultimately I can’t recommend it.
Skeptical because how do you put jazz in a museum? Music of any sort is a tricky thing to museum-ify. But jazz in particular, with its energy and improvisation… you could have a Hall of Fame for jazz. But a museum?
Hopeful because, hey, you never know. The right combination of stories, artifacts, and interactive listening kiosks might be able to do justice to the vast sweep of traditions that comprise jazz and its influence across the whole of music.
In the event, the Jazz Museum is at best a proto-museum. An aspirational museum. A sketch or an outline for an institution in the future. It occupies a small ground floor space on a side street in Harlem, and seems largely to exist as a shrine to one of Duke Ellington’s pianos. They have a couple of other instruments from less famous instrumentalists, and a chunk of a living room emphasizing the importance of music in homes in Harlem. But really there wasn’t much to see.
They had Ella playing in the background, but even that proved a mixed blessing. There were a couple of touchscreens where visitors can listen to jazz, but the background music, while good, interfered with listening to the headphones.
On the other hand, their space includes a tiny, informal performance area in the back, and while I was there an older gent stopped in and just started playing the piano. Really well. As a musically untalented person, I hate people who can do that. But deeply appreciated it in that space.
Visiting the National Jazz Museum made me think about the regular reports of the death of jazz, which may even be deader than opera at this point. I wondered if having a museum to it serves as yet another piece of evidence for the demise of the form? They have a display with photos of young jazz musicians, and sorta reach toward hip-hop, kinda. But really nothing I saw there suggests anything innovative or interesting has happened in jazz since the 1970s.
I firmly believe that museums for specific groups or cultures can emphasize the aliveness of the cultures they represent. Both the Museum of Chinese in America and the National Museum of the American Indian do that in different ways and at different scales. But I don’t think the National Jazz Museum succeeds. If jazz isn’t dead yet, maybe the museum will kill it.
If you are in New York City and are curious about or interested in jazz, here are an assortment of things I’d suggest you do rather than visit the Jazz Museum:
Hear a show at Smoke, Jazz Standard, Village Vanguard, Minton’s or any of a dozen or so other clubs.
Go to Jazz at Lincoln Center. A bit more stuffy and formalized — more like a museum for jazz if you will, but Wynton Marsalis is the reigning king of the art form. And the Allen Room has the best view of any music venue in New York City.
Check out art from the Jazz Age–either the exemplary show currently at the Cooper-Hewitt, or any time at the Whitney.
Make a pilgrimage to the final resting places of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery.
When they laid the cornerstone for the Music Hall, Andrew Carnegie himself said that “here all good causes may find a platform.” Remarkably, that statement evolved into a policy of openness to anyone who wanted to take the stage (and could afford to rent it). So even in times when many venues were closed to, say, African American performers, Carnegie was open.
Two Carnegie-related places in a row. First the Cooper Hewitt in Andrew Carnegie’s former home, now the museum of the history of the eponymous Hall. I feel I should open with a joke:
Q. How do you get to the museum at Carnegie Hall?
A. Just head toward the First Tier restrooms at intermission.
The Rose Museum is a small space telling the story of Carnegie Hall, twice actually: once from a building/Carnegie perspective, the other more from an artistic perspective. But they run together and get a little redundant. It is indeed between the auditorium and the First Tier restrooms, as well as the patrons’ lounge.
It’s got some artifacts: various conductors’ batons, Henny Youngman’s clarinet, Ella Fitzgerald’s glasses. And a great display of LP sleeves from some of the myriad records produced “live at Carnegie Hall.” And a number of original or facsimile documents relevant to the place. I found it pretty engaging. But for all that music can help bring museum exhibits to life (e.g., at the Museum at F.I.T.), it’s a tough task making music the subject for a museum.
Carnegie Hall is an absolute treasure. The city would be immeasurably poorer without it. But for a long time its survival was extremely doubtful. The thing I liked least at the Rose Museum was a reproduction of a 1959 article from Life Magazine about what would replace Carnegie Hall. The Life story makes it sound like demolishing it (in favor of a hideous fire-engine-red skyscraper) was a done deal. Happily for the city, the developer couldn’t raise the money, and Carnegie Hall survived. But it got me thinking.
The loss of Carnegie Hall would have been a disaster, but nothing happens in a vacuum. The original, glorious Penn Station was torn down in 1964. What if they had succeeded in demolishing Carnegie Hall 5 years earlier? It’s fair to speculate that that event would have galvanized the historic preservation movement. Which might then have raised sufficient hue and cry that maybe, arguably, plausibly, the effort to save Penn Station would have succeeded.
So that raises a fascinating thought experiment. Which New York would you prefer?
One with Carnegie Hall and the terrible ordeal that is Penn Station today.
Or one with no Carnegie Hall, but the McKim Mead and White Penn Station.
For all that I love the music hall, I might make that trade.
If haven’t yet, you really should attend a concert at Carnegie Hall! They program a diverse set of performers, something there is bound to attract you. Architecturally and acoustically it’s a treasure.
But treat the museum as someplace to kill time during an intermission, not a destination for a special trip.
If you love performing arts and can’t attend a concert there, go take the tour–actually stand on the famous stage! And if you can’t do THAT, then, as a third-best option, do take a spin through the museum.