Nowadays, we expect our rock stars, movie stars and big time athletes to live in impressive mansions worthy of their fame and status. The bigger, the better, for those who very often have more money than taste. Many people, especially those that came from very little, often like to show off when they make it big. So it was quite a surprise to see the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens. It’s an ordinary, rather small and plain middle class house on a block of middle class houses, in a middle class neighborhood. No mansion, no fuss for one of America’s most important and beloved musicians.
You would have to have lived in a cave to not have heard of, or seen clips of Louis Armstrong. His signature growly voice is iconic, and his coronet playing was genius. He was a famous and beloved black American at a time when black Americans were still struggling to move forward from the back of the bus, a and from behind the Jim Crow water fountains, and take their places as equals in American society. Even those who did not like black people liked Louis Armstrong. They had to – his talent was unmistakable, and his music was simply too toe-tapping infectious.
The details of his life are now legend. He was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz, in 1901. At the age of eleven, an encounter with the law changed his life forever. He had been caught firing a pistol, and was sentenced to the Colored Waifs Home for 18 months. It was there that the warden, Professor Peter Davis and the Director of the Home, “Captain” Joseph Jones, taught the young Armstrong how to play the coronet. By the time he was released, he could play marches, popular tunes and brass band music, all with a ragtime signature.
By the time he was 14, in 1915, he was playing in professional bands around the city. By 1922, he was the coronet player for King Oliver’s Creole Brass Band, up in Chicago, the new center of jazz in America. A year later, he made his first recording with King Oliver’s Band. A whirlwind of gigs with all kinds of jazz greats followed that, with Armstrong ending up in New York City, playing and recording with Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Roseland Ballroom. It was only 1925, and he was only 24 years old. He also got married – this was his second time down the aisle, this time with pianist Lillian Hardin.
The late 1920s were a pivotal time in his career, it was during these years that Armstrong developed what is today, jazz. He took elements of New Orleans ragtime, and added his own signature lead-and-solo work to it, changing the ensemble style of playing popular in his day. Today, we expect solos in jazz pieces, from all of the instruments, and the tradition has spread to rock and roll and other forms of music as well.
He also introduced his singing style and mastered not only the art of scatting, or wordless singing, but his showmanship. Louis Armstrong became the consummate band leader, soloist and performer, giving his audience the singing, the playing, the banter and charming repartee that the world grew to love. He could conduct his band, play the solo, and turn around and sing the song while talking to the audience. They loved it.
By the time the Great Depression hit the United States, Louis Armstrong was a bonafide star. He was here in New York, now the jazz capital of the world. He played at all of the popular and famous venues, with the top musicians of jazz. He was wanted in Europe, and was off to a tour of Great Britain, beginning in 1932. It was there that he gained the nickname “Satchmo,” a shortening of “Satchelmouth,” the name of his coronet. The name was given to him by Percy Brooks, editor of “Melody Maker,” and the name stuck.
A further European tour was next, and when he got home, Satchmo was Hollywood bound. He was now famous for his covers of popular songs, and incorporated several of them, as well as his horn playing, in short appearances in several Hollywood pictures. He also had a radio show, and was a headliner in clubs across the country. Of course he played the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, among other places. The jazz musician, who still couldn’t rent a hotel room in the South, was one of the most famous Americans in the world.
All of this touring and fame does not make for a stable marriage for many people, and Armstrong was divorced, married, and divorced again before he married Lucille Wilson in 1942. He called her “the wife who lasted.” A year later, she went house hunting in Queens and found this house. Lucille bought it and furnished it while Satchmo was on the road. When he came home, he fully expected to hate the house, and actually kept his bags in the cab, so he could go to a hotel, but one look at this house, and he was charmed. The Armstrong’s lived here together until his death in 1971, and her death in 1983.
The house was built in 1910, designed by architect R. W. Johnson, a local Corona architect. It was one of many such houses built as Corona and other parts of Queens were becoming increasingly attractive to the growing number of middle class buyers. The house first looked like many such houses in Brooklyn and parts of Queens; a two story wood framed townhouse. The original drawing is on file, showing a typical row house with a nice cornice, late Victorian detailing and a tall stoop leading to a front porch. A half exposed basement level is underneath.
Lucille Armstrong bought the house from the Brennan family. By the time she got it, the wood siding had been replaced by aluminum, and the front porch had been enclosed to make a larger living room. Windows had been added to the front and sides. A garage had also been attached on the left. The only original detail remaining was the cornice and a decorative frieze right underneath. A tax photo from the 1930s shows the house at that time.
The Armstrong’s put their own changes on the house. They clad it in brick sometime before the 1970s, and further changed its appearance, making it the boxy, faux Colonial Revival it is today. The interior was also totally modified to fit the tastes of the day, with a high end modern kitchen, Mid-Century modern rooms, and a truly awful blinged out bathroom, with mirrored walls, gold fixtures and a hand carved shell sink. I guess Satchmo did enjoy his creature comforts, but he didn’t brag about them in the outward appearances of his house.]
Although he was on the road a lot over the next thirty years, Satchmo was proud to call Corona home. He would go on to record some of his greatest hits while living here in this house, including his award-winning and very popular versions of the songs “What a Wonderful World,” and “Hello, Dolly’, in the late 1960s. Satchmo’s wife Lucille told reporters after his death that this house was the only place he ever felt was home. He would come here after being on the road and relax, often inviting jazz musicians to come over and jam. He also invited the local kids over, and taught a few how to play the trumpet. Both he and his wife were active in Corona activities, both supporting local causes and taking part in local activities. Lucille was especially involved in many local organizations.
After a lifetime of musical innovation and popular stardom, Louis Armstrong died peacefully in his sleep in 1971, at the age of 70. His legacy of jazz innovation and his talent made him famous, but the way he fundamentally changed jazz is his most important legacy. Lucille lived here until she passed away in 1983. She became a busy community activist. She wanted the Armstrong house to be a museum honoring Louis and his music after her death, and so willed the house and its contents to the City of New York to be used as a museum after her death.
Today, the Louis Armstrong house is a very popular house museum. It still surprises people with its ordinary-ness, tucked away on a quiet block. Inside, the house is decorated as Lucille and Louis left it. Many of their personal mementos are still in the house, and you can see the rooms as the Armstrong’s lived in them. Louis liked to record everything, so there are tapes of him and Lucille just talking about nothing and everything. They go on as you enter a room. Of course, one of his coronets in on display, as are all kinds of honors and artifacts. Please check their website for touring hours and directions.
Mayor John Lindsay would note, “From a humble two-room shack in New Orleans, he rose to the top of the world…And having risen to the top of the world, he came to live in Corona.” The house is located at 34-56 107th Street. GMAP
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)