When Louis Armstrong moved to Queens in 1943, he laid roots that reach into the present. Kept much as it was during the decades Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived there, his modest brick home is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum — a steadfast resource for scholarship and the jazz community.
On Tuesday, the museum launched the new virtual exhibition “That’s My Home” to give those in isolation a peek into the life of the jazz legend. A collage of archival photographs, voice recordings and writings, the digital experience offers an immersive exploration into how Armstrong lived out his days in the house, where he created music and hosted friends.
“For 25 years, Queens College has proudly preserved the Louis Armstrong Research Collections and has opened its doors to anyone with an interest in this monumental artist,” Jeff Rosenstock, the museum’s acting director, said. “Today we celebrate the precious time Satchmo spent at home in Corona, Queens, as we spend time at home ourselves. We hope that we can all draw inspiration from Armstrong’s love for his neighborhood, his community and New York, his adopted city.”
The exhibition will expand in the coming weeks to include virtual tours of the home, livestreamed discussions and more.
During his time in Queens, Armstrong amassed a large archive of personal recordings. In an essay accompanying the online exhibition, Louis Armstrong House Museum Research Collections Director Ricky Riccardi notes that the musician began taping conversations, programs, dinners and other activities in the 1950s. The audio from these dispatches is dispersed throughout “That’s My Home” between photographs and Riccardi’s insights, allowing for readers to take a deep dive through virtual holdings.
Armstrong’s recordings didn’t stop at music and conversation. The jazz icon used his tape machine to read news clippings and reviews, creating a document of how he consumed media coverage about himself.
“I’ve been putting it on my tape recorder from the radio,” Armstrong said in one session unearthed and singled out by Riccardi. “I have all kinds of statements and different things, which will be good to remember when I get to be a hundred years old.”
An attempt to satisfy a frequently sought after question about what constituted a typical day for Armstrong, the exhibition dedicates a section titled “Eulogizing the Chops” to the icon’s various musical warm-up routines. Complete with recordings that feature Armstrong speaking to what he may have imagined would be his future audience, and intimate photos from some of his last at-home sessions before his health steeply declined, the section walks viewers through how he approached practicing over a span of nearly 20 years. With no real set schedule established by Armstrong, the recordings vary in content, vacillating from more deliberate documentation to casual riffs.
Another entry into the current iteration of the exhibition is a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Down Beat editor Dan Morgenstern, who conducted the conversation with Armstrong in May of 1965 for a dedicated spread celebrating the musician’s 65th birthday. Morgenstern was accompanied by Jack Bradley, who took a handful of photographs from that day, painting a comprehensive picture of what happened.
The lives of those who surrounded Armstrong in the house are dutifully contextualized through “That’s My Home” — with special attention paid to his wife Lucille, who helped to preserve Armstrong’s legacy after his death in 1971. Under her tutelage, the house was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977, paving the way for the museum as it stands today.
The collection, which includes a veritable trove of materials, was digitized and made available to the public in 2018, following a major $2.7 million grant from Robert F. Smith’s Fund II Foundation. Those wishing to dig even deeper into the Armstrong holdings can find the archive in its entirety on the museum’s website.
Top Image: Louis Armstrong entertains the neighborhood kids on the front steps of his Queens home in the summer of 1970. Photo by Chris Barham. Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.