I was out of town giving speeches when Louis Armstrong’s house, located in Corona, Queens, and now owned by the City of New York, was finally opened to the public as a museum on Oct. 15. That was a celebration I hated to miss (especially since I’m just about to start work on a new Armstrong biography), but I was lucky enough to have been given a private tour a few years ago, back when the house was still being restored to its original condition. I wrote about it in an essay that will be collected next year in A Terry Teachout Reader:
Most jazz musicians, black and white alike, come from middle-class backgrounds, while most of those who are born poor strive mightily–and, more often than not, successfully–to join the ranks of the middle class. Anyone who doubts that Armstrong filled the latter bill need only visit his home, located some seven blocks from Shea Stadium in a shabby but respectable part of Queens. It is a modest three-story frame house whose elaborate interior is uncannily reminiscent of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s gaudy Memphis mansion. From the Jetsons-style kitchen-of-the-future to the silver wallpaper and golden faucets of the master bathroom, the Armstrong house looks exactly like what it is: the residence of a poor southern boy who grew up and made good.
Unlike Graceland, though, it is neither oppressive nor embarrassing. As one stands in Armstrong’s smallish study (whose decorations include, among other things, a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett), it is impossible not to be touched to the heart by the aspiration that is visible wherever you look. This, you sense, was the home of a working man, one bursting with a pride that came not from what he had but from what he did. The American dream has had no more loyal exemplar. “I never want to be anything more than I am, what I don’t have I don’t need,” he wrote. “My home with Lucille [his fourth wife] is good, but you don’t see me in no big estates and yachts, that ain’t gonna play your horn for you. When the guys come from taking a walk around the estate they ain’t got no breath to blow that horn.”
You really should go and see for yourself. The Armstrong House isn’t the easiest place in the world to reach from midtown Manhattan, but it’s perfectly feasible, and absolutely worth a day’s pilgrimage. For information about the house, including directions, click here. It’s a trip you’ll never forget.
While I’m at it, I also want to put in a plug for Michael Cogswell’s Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo, the newly published “official” book of the Armstrong House and Archives (of which Cogswell is the curator). It’s a coffee-table tome crammed full of unpublished photos of Armstrong at home, backstage, and on the road, and I highly recommend it as an antidote for the blues. You can’t look at Louis–or think about him, or listen to his music–without smiling.