SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

March 1, 2002

 

Satchmo: King of Queens

The other day I took a trip out to Corona, Queens -- not exactly the ends of the earth, but as these things are reckoned in New York, a fur piece to be sure. Did I say trip? It was a pilgrimage -- to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College and the Louis Armstrong House, Armstrong's residence in a sedate little bedroom community nearby.

I made the trip at the invitation of Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, who -- it seems like an eternity ago -- once worked at the same Charlottesville record store I did. Back in those days, Michael was a musician gigging all over the busy Central Virginia music scene, playing saxophone in everything from free-form jazz quartets to wedding bands. And I was the sort of proto-slacker who had pretty much reached the height of my ambitions when I got a job in, rather than simply hung out in, a record store. Then the two of us got married -- not to one another, I hasten to point out.

The next thing I knew, Michael had gone back to school and earned a Masters in Musicology, followed by a Masters in Library Science, and I was off to Peru, teaching English and holding down the fort while my linguist bride did fieldwork.

Michael and I actually corresponded while I was in Peru; we lost track of one another when I moved to New York and he set off to Austin for a graduate degree. But one day in 1991, I spotted a Talk of the Town article in The New Yorker about a party held at Queens College, launching the Armstrong Archives. Always fascinated by anything related to the great musician, I stumbled over a familiar name -- the college had hired a jazz scholar named Michael Cogswell to catalog and organize its rich trove of Armstrong memorabilia.

Michael had certainly come up in the world. I, on the other hand, was still working in a record store -- although this time it was just a day-job while I attempted to develop a market for my writing.


The artist as a young man.
(c. 1934)
(Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archives)

You're probably wondering how Queens College and the City of New York came to own Louis Armstrong's house and belongings. Heck, you're probably stunned to discover that Armstrong lived in a modest little Queens frame house.

The house was the doing of his fourth wife, Lucille. Armstrong, who had lived a life of spirit-numbing poverty as a boy, was sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys at the age of 12, for firing off a pistol celebrating the New Year. It was there that he learned to play the trumpet and, if not from the minute he put the horn to his lips, as Wynton Marsalis brashly proclaimed in Ken Burns' Jazz, then certainly not too long after, he was delighting people with his virtuosity. In 1922, he received King Oliver's summons to join him in Chicago. His success in Oliver's band led to his solo career and his triumphant trip to New York, where he once again stunned everyone with his playing. He had trouble with mobsters in Chicago and New York, who wanted a piece of the popular entertainer, so he toured the country and then Europe -- twice -- before forming a business alliance with Joe Glaser, an aggressive businessman with more juice than the thugs Armstrong originally left town to avoid, and Armstrong was eventually able to return to the Big Apple.

Armstrong met Lucille Wilson in 1942. She was a dancer at the Cotton Club. "When I first saw her," he wrote in an article for Ebony called "Why I Like Dark Women," "the glow of her deep-brown skin got me deep down … Lucille was the first girl to crack the high-yellow color standard used to pick girls for the famous Cotton Club chorus line. I think she was a distinguished pioneer." His fourth wife, she proved to be the woman he lived with for the rest of his life.

While Louis was on tour in 1943, Lucille bought the house and furnished it. She telegraphed him the address, and when he got off the train in Manhattan, he handed the telegram to a cabbie and, soon after, pulled up in front. Apparently Armstrong could not believe the house was his. "Go on," he told the driver. "Take me to the address I gave you."

When he walked in the door, Lucille had dinner on the table. After years on the road, Louis Armstrong finally had a home of his own. He loved it passionately.


Louis and Lucille Armstrong's beloved home in Corona, Queens.
(Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archives)

Armstrong died in 1971; Lucille continued to live in the house until her death in 1983. She left the house to the City of New York. The house's contents just sort of went along with the house, no one seemed to realize the importance of Armstrong's lifetime acquisition of memorabilia. Queens College was given license to operate the house in 1986. Armstrong's personal possessions, which filled the house, became the core of the Louis Armstrong Archives, housed in the Archival Center in the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library at Queens College and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Louis Armstrong Education Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

Even though Louis Armstrong was one of the most distinctive musical stylists of the twentieth century, most people fail to realize the full extent of his accomplishments. As a performer, he revolutionized jazz -- he single-handedly created the language of the jazz solo. His mastery over his instrument and his ability to improvise coherent, complex solos was light years beyond his contemporaries of the twenties and thirties, and he was just as influential as a singer as he was as an instrumentalist. Jazz scholar Gary Giddins once said Armstrong invented popular singing as we know it.

If Armstrong had died in 1930, he'd still rank among the most significant and influential artists of the century. But he did so much more than simply (simply!) change the face of jazz.

He wrote several immensely popular books -- and he definitely wrote them, Armstrong's voice on the page was just as striking and full of music as any 12 bar solo. Further, he was his unvarnished self in both of his autobiographies, confessing to a failed career as a pimp and describing his delight in smoking marijuana.


Armstrong was posthumously awarded the 2nd Annual High Times Cannabis Cup. (Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archives)

Quietly, but courageously, he eradicated the barriers that separated white and black wherever he encountered them. He acted in major motion pictures and crossed television's color line regularly. In 1937 he took over Rudy Vallee's Fleischmann Yeast Hour for the summer, becoming the first African-American to host a national radio program. As he toured the country relentlessly, Armstrong frequently broke the long-honored color barriers that prevented African-Americans from performing in theaters and clubs throughout the US -- usually with no fanfare.

He publicly denounced Arkansas   Governor Orval Faubus as an "uneducated plowboy" after Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock's Central High School. When his blunt comments evoked a firestorm of controversy, Armstrong's manager dispatched a spokesman who assembled the press and claimed "Louis didn't mean that." Upon learning of this, Armstrong called the press back in and insisted, "Yes, I did."

Armstrong was out there on his own with those words -- Sammy Davis, Jr. felt compelled to issue a statement that said, "Louis Armstrong does not speak for my people."

When Eisenhower later sent the 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine high school students to class, Armstrong proved that he was not just strong enough to stand behind his words, he was also big enough to forgive. He sent a telegram to Eisenhower expressing his solidarity with the president.

That's the public Armstrong. When I reached the Archives, Michael Cogswell showed me additional facets of the private Armstrong. Louis was a hi-fi buff. Throughout his life he taped things compulsively -- the Archives include 650 reels of tape Armstrong recorded. Frequently, he just turned on the tape machine and let it run. Some tapes have him practicing along with his own recordings, some tapes record Armstrong and his friends desultorily conversing.

When we arrived at the Archives, Michael was copying a tape of Armstrong's that has become notorious among Armstrong collectors as The Slivovitz Tape. Long time Armstrong friend Jack Bradley had brought jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern to meet the trumpeter, who offered his guests some of the plum brandy he'd brought back from a European tour, warning them, "Now don't drink this if you have anywhere to go tomorrow!"

Armstrong continued to talk, seemingly unaffected, but the other two men, as the tape went on, began to slur their words and giggle at inappropriate moments. There's even a bit of audio drama, as Armstrong takes out a gift from the Philips Corporation, a prototype of a new type of tape recorder, one which used tiny "cartridges" as his delighted guests exclaimed in wonder. It was, of course, one of the first cassette decks ever made.

Armstrong's taping hobby revealed another side of the man -- every one of the 650 reel-to-reel tapes he recorded was in a box Armstrong had decorated with collages scotch-taped from personal photos, magazine ads, and newspaper photographs. On top of everything else he mastered, the man was an accomplished visual artist.


Two of Armstrong's horns that are included in the Archives'  holdings.
(Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archives)

Michael treated us well, showing us a broad spectrum of the Archives' holdings, from Armstrong's trumpets to the arrangements Armstrong had commissioned for his big band in the forties. What a thrill it was to hear the man speaking on his tapes and, at the same time, see the tools he created art with!

But I was unprepared for the impact of visiting the house itself.

Now I grew up in Virginia, where you can't throw a stick without it bouncing off of some landmarked house or another. Even better (or worse, depending on how you look at it), I grew up in the shadow of Monticello and toured Mr. Jefferson's house on the hill just about every time some out of town relatives dropped in. Monticello spoils you for other historic dwellings. First, the building itself is a unique and intimate expression of the mind of Thomas Jefferson, there's almost nothing ordinary about the place. But more than that, the estate is filled, not with "typical" period furniture, but with the actual possessions Jefferson used every day -- from the reclining chaise in his study to the four-person music stand he and his musician friends would gather around when playing chamber music.

In the same way, the Armstrong house is filled with the stuff that Louis and Lucille used every day, as well as their personal art collections and tchotchkes. And it feels lived in, from the beautiful custom kitchen that you just know got regular workouts to the Leroy Neiman painting of a sax player, hung low so that Armstrong could admire it from a seated position.

The highlight for me, of course, was Armstrong's den, a comfortable wood-paneled study with AR-3a's built into the ceiling and a stereo built into the bookcases that line one wall of the room, complete with a matched pair of Tandberg reel-to-reels, a Marantz 10B tuner, solid-state Marantz preamp with different phono EQs, Marantz amps, and a Dual 1019 record changer with a Pickering cartridge. (Earlier, at the Archives, Michael had shown us Armstrong's record collection, which was surprisingly diverse.) I came away feeling as though I'd actually spent time in the great man's presence.


Armstrong's study -- note the twin Tandberg tape decks built into the bookcase.
(Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong Archives)

Before we left, we walked through Armstrong's beautiful back yard -- a surprisingly large, beautifully landscaped garden that now plays host to a free series of jazz concerts for the children of Queens each summer. It includes a concrete bar and a serious grill -- it's easy to imagine a genial Armstrong playing host there, which, in a sense, he still does.

Everything in the house is about to go into storage so the archival restoration people can structurally reinforce the dwelling and restore the rooms to their mid-century splendor. The garage is going to be converted into a visitor's center and, when the house reopens in Fall 2003, it will be open to the public for the first time.

Make a note of it, because it's well worth a visit.

Even though the Louis Armstrong House is closed for renovation, you can still visit the Archives, either in person or online at www.satchmo.net. It's a great place to learn about Louis Armstrong's cultural legacy. There, you can even take your own photo or video tour of the house. There's also a recommended recordings list and an Armstrong biography.

You may think I'm making a lot of fuss over this, but the Louis Armstrong Archives and The Louis Armstrong House are unique among our historic landmarks. We Americans have deified our founding fathers. We have erected memorials to statesmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, and generals beyond number. In the Archives and residence, however, we honor a man who overcame the worst poverty and racial oppression this country could throw at him and out of those raw materials he created a legacy of hope and joy that was embraced by the entire world.

Karl Barth said, "Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart." But when they wish to know sublime joy, they listen to Louis Armstrong. 

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com


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