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
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.
(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
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
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
Louis and Lucille Armstrong's beloved home in Corona,
(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
Armstrong was posthumously awarded the 2nd Annual High
Times Cannabis Cup. (Photo courtesy of Louis
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
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
Two of Armstrong's horns that are included in the
(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
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
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
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