Nowhere in the world has there been anyone quite like the legendary jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong. If you’re looking for an amazing place to visit and learn intriguing facts you never knew about this iconic figure, then you won’t want to miss visiting The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, a section of Queens, New York. The awe-inspiring National Historical Landmark has since 1976 promoted the cultural, historical and humanitarian legacy of Louis Armstrong by preserving the two-story property that houses the gems documenting the musician’s life’s work.
Besides the exhibit, the museum also offers educational programs that are open to the public such as jazz concerts, lectures and film screenings. The historic site is owned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by Queens College. The Louis Armstrong Educational Fund provides financial support for the museum.
Louis and his wife lived in the modest home located in a working-class neighborhood from 1943 until his death in 1971. Lucille continued to reside in the home until her death in 1983. Although he certainly had the means, Louis never wanted to live in a huge mansion located in some hoity-toity neighborhood surrounded by servants.
What an incredible experience it was to visit the museum, step back in time and hear fascinating stories about the lives of Louis and Lucille and to see their furnishings, collection of mementos and other personal belongings. The standout artifacts in the museum include an encased gold trumpet given to him by King George V of England. In the couple’s living room is an exquisite royal blue vase gifted to him by the then President of France in 1948, Vincent Auriol. Everything in the “Little Pad,” Louis’ nickname for the home is original and well-preserved exactly as the Armstrong’s left them. Visitors get the feeling that Louis and Lucille will be home any minute. Louis was the first jazz musician to publish an autobiography, the manuscript is archived in the museum. He was also the first African American to appear amongst the pages of Vanity Fair Magazine, this historical event took place in the 1930’s.
Today, The Louis Armstrong House Museum is visited by fans and fans-to-be from all around the world. It is the only jazz musician’s home that is preserved and fully opened to the public. What was once a stack of 72 shipping cartons of home-recorded tapes, photographs, scrapbooks, music scores, and other materials discovered inside Armstrong’s home has strategically expanded to become the world’s largest publicly held research archives of any jazz musician.
Hyland Harris has been a manager at The Louis Armstrong House Museum for the last eight years. He is committed to making others aware of the enormous contributions and legacy of one of America’s most celebrated jazz icons. Here Hyland shares with 50BOLD, incredible stories about Louis and Lucille and discusses why it’s so worth exploring this important National Historic Landmark.
50BOLD: Would you say Louis had a rags-to-riches story because early life was far from easy?
Hyland: Louis grew up poor in a dangerous New Orleans neighborhood called “The Battlefield.” He only went as far as the 5th grade because he had to work. Having a full-time job at the age of 12 before the Great Depression wasn’t that uncommon. So at a young age when he got his hands on a trumpet, it changed his life. By the time Louis became a teenager, he was playing with most of the top bands in New Orleans. When Louis’ mentor Joe “King” Oliver, a cornet player, and bandleader brought him to Chicago, it didn’t take him long to make a name for himself. Louis grew up so poor and so he couldn’t erase his childhood experiences from his consciousness. So he became a workaholic, and traveled about 300 days a year; he kept this pace for the entirety of his adult life. He would not stop working! And if he wasn’t working for even a very short period, Louis would get itchy because his mentor, Joe Oliver died broke and this was a constant reminder that shook him up.
50BOLD: How did Louis meet Lucille?
Hyland: Lucille worked at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club; she was their first dark-skinned dancer. There were clubs throughout the country with slave times-related names like the Black and Tan Club in Seattle, the Cotton Club in Harlem, or the Plantation Club in St. Louis. Louis spotted Lucille at the Cotton Club where she had broken their color barrier, and that’s when their love affair began. He actually wrote a famous cover feature for a 1954 issue of Ebony magazine entitled, “Why I Love Dark-Skinned Women.” The article also included a picture of Lucille sitting on his lap. So when you think of Louis Armstrong, you don’t picture him as having a social consciousness.
Lucille grew up a lot differently from Louis and came from a family of business owners. Lucille was an educated woman and well-traveled; she was a real go-getter. She actually bought the Corona house without Louis knowing anything about it until eight months after the purchase. The original house was erected in 1910 and owned by an Irish family by the name of Brennan. Louis traveled 300 days out of the year and was only home two months out of the year. So when he’d come home, there was always something different in the home. Louis would ask Lucille questions like, “Wasn’t there a wall here and a bathroom there?” The questions became a running joke between them.
50BOLD: What did Louis find so special about his neighborhood in Corona and why didn’t he want to move away?
Hyland: When Louis would come home after being on the road, he would beep the horn on his bus, and the neighborhood children would come running to bring his equipment and luggage into his home. He loved his neighbors and the feeling was mutual. Louis, who oftentimes slept on buses, trains and in bad hotels would come home and become the neighborhood babysitter. He loved children and never had any of his own. The children on the block would sit in front of his television and Louis would feed them ice cream. They all watched Westerns together on TV. Although Louis was a millionaire and a celebrity, he felt right at home in Corona and cherished the simple life he had made for himself there. He’d say, “We’re right out here with the rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats. We don’t need to move out in the suburbs to some big mansion with lots of servants and yardmen and things. …The Frigidaire is full of food. What more do we need?” Louis was humble and invested much in this community.
50BOLD: Louis was wealthy. Didn’t they ever want to move to a bigger place? A mansion even, since they certainly could afford it?
Hyland: Louis loved his neighborhood and did not want to move. Lucille would put down payments on mansions and brownstones, and Louis would stop payments on all of them! Louis’ next door neighbor was a telephone operator, and yet he was on first name bases with the King of Sweden and Princess Grace. He didn’t want to live anywhere else. In one of his letters to Lucille, he says, “I’m staying put. I’m staying right there.” Louis loved this neighborhood, and his house was never broken into while they were away because their neighbors would keep watch on the home. He took care of this neighborhood. Louis sent kids to college, fixed roofs, paid mortgages, and he did so quietly without fanfare.
50BOLD: Louis traveled all over the world. Wasn’t he considered an ambassador representing the culture of the U.S. as well as African Americans?
Hyland: Yes, he was performing in all areas of the world that were considered politically unstable in places like East Berlin behind the Iron Curtain, and Africa during that whole colonization period. He did a concert in the Belgian Congo in the midst of the Civil War, and when his plane landed, this foreign fascist called a truce, and they sat next to each other to watch him perform. And when Louis’ plane took off, the war resumed. Louis performed in every major country in the world except for the Soviet Union and mainland China.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he gained the nicknamed “Ambassador Sach,” and he was really spreading African American culture directly, not through recordings but through live performances. He was also spreading American culture and doing so year-after-year for the majority of his life, and he didn’t even realize what he was doing. He just felt like this was something he was born to do.
50BOLD: How did Louis deal with racial tension issues here?
Hyland: Since he was at the entertainment forefront, he was indeed one of the first international celebrities from the United States. He would deal with racial issues kind of obtrusively. Like Louis always made sure he had an integrated band which was a huge statement to make back in the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, New Orleans passed an ordinance stating that Black musicians and white musicians couldn’t be on the same stage together. Louis refused to go back to his hometown, New Orleans, for many years until the ordinance was changed. When the Civil Rights Movement began picking up steam like most movements, it was youth-based. For many years, Louis just remained silent with regards to race issues.
So Louis felt that the Civil Rights Movement was kind of not acknowledging the work he had been doing since the 1920s. Louis began to catch a lot of hell from people, particularly from 1949 to 1950. In 1957 he criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his initial refusal to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. He said, “They’re treating my people like dogs.” He caught a lot of hell from that from the white press and oddly, the Black press as well. They were really caught off guard by Louis’ statement and asked for him to retract it, he refused. Louis felt bitter towards the end of his life.
(50BOLD’s edtor’s note: Whites viewed Louis as non-threatening with his pearly whites, trademark handkerchief, and down-home demeanor. Many Blacks referred to Louis as an Uncle Tom or “handkerchief head,” but he saw himself as a silent revolutionary who did many things to defend his race. He refused to straighten his hair as so many African American males did at the time. Louis was in fact very proud of his natural hair. He also wrote to President Dwight D. Eisenhower criticizing his failure to respond to Arizona’s decision to not desegregate. Louis wrote to President Eisenhower again to condemn his failure to act in response to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus’s blocking of desegregation in Little Rock. He simultaneously canceled a tour of Russia, stating in a letter to the President, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” and “It’s getting almost so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.” Louis would also not play, where he could not stay. The luxury hotels at the time did not allow Blacks to stay on the premises as guests but would book them as entertainment. While on tour, Louis insisted that he be allowed to stay at the very same luxury hotels from which Blacks had been excluded. “I had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay,” Louis was once quoted as saying.)
50BOLD: He traveled so extensively and worked so hard, how was his overall health?
Hyland: In the 50’s he had a heart attack in Italy and mum was the word. Very few people knew that Louis had a heart problem. He thought that if promoters knew he had a health problem, they wouldn’t hire him. So he secretly traveled with medical staff from that point forward. Even the band didn’t know about his heart condition. Now in the late 60s, the doctors warned him to stop working and forced him into retirement. Louis didn’t take too kindly to the thought of retirement; he never used the word. Instead of retirement, he preferred to use the word “intermission” but spent the entire time trying to get back to work.
After Louis died, Lucille went into hyperdrive trying to maintain his legacy. The airports that are named after Louis Armstrong, Lucille was the driving force behind this honor. There are numerous things named after Louis like a stadium at the U.S. Open, streets, scholarships, camps—Lucille was behind all these moves and did so within 12 years time. Ironically, she was 12 years younger than Louis and lived 12 years after he had passed away.
50BOLD: Louis’ music is extremely popular.
Hyland: Yes, Louis was among the first jazz musicians to have a number one hit. He was also the last jazz musician to have a number one hit. He is the only person in history, regardless of genre or styles to have hits in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. What a Wonderful World was a hit again in 1986. Louis had 60 years of hits, and this is an incredible feat!
50BOLD: Did What a Wonderful World remind Louis of his life in Corona?
Hyland: In one of the recordings we play during the tour, Louis speaks very passionately about his love for his neighborhood in Corona. He talks about how his block was like one big family. Louis mentions how he had witnessed three generations come up on his block, “They come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille.” So, he felt that it was truly a wonderful world.
50BOLD: It’s hard to believe that after Lucille died no one lived in the house for 20 years. It was kept up so well.
Hyland: Lucille had a cleaning lady, and her name was Bessie who lived in Manhattan. She was originally from Jamaica and was a very religious woman. Lucille would say, “Bessie do you want to stay here? I’ll build quarters for you,” and she’d say, “No Mrs. Armstrong.” Lucille would then say, “I will give you a set of keys,” and Bessie would say, “No, I don’t want your keys.” She was dedicated to cleaning the Armstrong’s home and was a very strong-willed lady. I think Lucille and Bessie saw a little of themselves in each other.
One day when Lucille was going to Boston for a scholarship fund for Louis, she told Bessie, “You’re going to take my keys. You’re going to take care of my house.” Finally, after 12 years of not listening to her, Bessie took the keys. Lucille left the home to go on a trip to Boston and suffered a fatal heart attack. Bessie took Lucille’s sudden death as a message from God, and with those keys that had been given to her, she’d go to the Corona house twice a week for 20 years to clean it—unpaid. If Bessie hadn’t maintained the house, we probably wouldn’t be standing here today.
50BOLD: Bessie cleaned this house for 20 years without getting paid?
Hyland: She cleaned this house because she knew it was Lucille’s dream to have this as a museum. One day Queens College administrators were visiting this house, and Bessie arrived while they were still here. They asked Bessie, “Who are you?” and she responded, “Who are you!?” So, suffice it to say, the Queens College administrators hired Bessie, and she continued to clean this house until she passed away.
50BOLD: It’s been said that Louis had two birthdates. Can you elaborate on this conflicting information?
Hyland: Louis had two birthdates, through no fault of his own. Louis’ mother couldn’t read or write, so when he was born she heard fireworks, this is where the 4th of July date came from, and he always celebrated his birthday on this day. The July 4th date is on all legal documents, passports, draft notices, and on Louis’ gravestone as his official birthdate.
After Lucille passed away, she didn’t even know this, but Louis’ baptismal document appeared, and it was stamped August 4, 1901. So Louis lived his entire life thinking he was 13 months older than his actual age.
On July 4th, 1971 the day that Louis thought was his birthday; a surprise party was thrown for him. Louis drew so much energy from this party that he called up his doctor and manager the next day to inform them that his “intermission” period was over. He put his band back together, and rehearsals were all set to begin. Louis went to bed with a big smile on his face, and he never woke up. He passed away in his sleep at 5:30 am on July 6th after he had made plans to begin performing again.
50BOLD: I can only imagine what took place on his block when news of his passing spread!
Hyland: Louis passed away about 5:30 am and President Nixon called his home by noon to offer his condolences. President Richard Nixon was pretty busy during the summer of ’71. The Corona streets surrounding Louis’ home immediately became impassable. People from all over the world stood in front of this house. The neighbors were astounded because they somehow didn’t think Louis was that famous. He just seemed like a regular guy to them. Even though they’d see Louis make TV appearances on popular talk shows at the time like The Mike Douglas Show, they still didn’t get just how famous Louis actually was and how beloved.
50BOLD: His funeral must have been astounding.
Hyland: Louis’ funeral procession was astounding, and the pallbearers were some of Hollywood’s elite like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. Ella Fitzgerald was supposed to sing at the funeral, but she was so overcome with emotion that she couldn’t do so. Singer Peggy Lee had to fill in for Ella at the last minute. The first car in the funeral procession belonged to comedienne, Moms Mabley.
Lucille received around 20,000 letters from fans all over the world offering their condolences, and she answered all of them but it took a couple of years. The outpouring of love led to this home becoming a National Historic Landmark. Now we have a home, where we receive people from all over the world, six days a week, and they get to see where Louis lived and died.
50BOLD: Tell us about the various programs the museum sponsors.
Hyland: We have four main programs. The first one is called Teen Thursdays and twice a year, on Thursdays for six weeks, students in the area come to the house for a lecture series on the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong and Louis in American culture. There’s another program called Casa where we go to schools to promote the idea of playing an instrument. Teen Thursdays and Casa always include a concert at the student’s school.
Our biggest event is Pops is Tops, a concert held here for neighborhood schools where kids get to see world-class jazz musicians and for many, it is the first time they’ve seen an instrument up close. We host about 1,200 kids over the course of 3 days. And our last educational program is our Curatorial Fellows that began last year. For the Fellows program, we receive two students from historically Black colleges, and they get mentored in professional museum work.
50BOLD: Tell us about the research center that will be built across the street from the museum. When will it be completed?
Hyland: The building is about 12 years in the making. All of the archives at Queens College will be on the 2nd floor of that building. All of Louis’ trumpets and recordings will be housed there. The first floor will be a large exhibit area with a space large enough for lectures, and concerts.
50BOLD: Are there upcoming events you’d like to share information about with our readers?
Hyland: We have a Hot Jazz concert coming up on August 11th that is the last of three concerts. We will also host our Jazz Mobile block party that shuts down the block! We end the summer with the block party event which takes place on August 23rd from 2:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
50BOLD: How long are the museum tours and how much is the admission?
Hyland: A tour usually takes about 40 minutes, and costs $12 for adults and $8 for seniors, students, and children. Admission is free for children under age 4. The tours take place at the top of every hour on Tuesday through Friday. The first tour is at 10:00 am, and the last one is at 4:00 pm. The weekend tours run from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm and the museum is closed on Mondays.
50BOLD: What do you want people to know about the Louis Armstrong House Museum?
Hyland: We’re trying to get the message out about who Louis Armstrong was and his importance to American and African American culture and jazz. He left an incredible body of work for future historians that will be housed at the space that’s being built across the street. There were a lot of things about Louis Armstrong that even I didn’t know. When I came here and experienced this museum, it was like an on-going learning process.
When we discuss racism and civil rights and mention Louis Armstrong, the story is very layered, textured. People who refer to Louis as an Uncle Tom don’t understand the hurdles he had to go through and the opportunities that he created for so many which is why I am thankful that this museum can spotlight the actual facts about his life.
For more information about The Louis Armstrong House Museum visit www.LouisArmstrongHouse.org, 34-56 107th St, Corona, NY 11368, 718-478-8274.