|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|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.
|34-56 107th Street, Flushing, Queens
|General Admission: $10, with tour