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Visiting Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’

The Louis Armstrong House Museum is a portal to the neighborhood’s past and a link to its future

On a late summer night in Corona, Queens, approaching 107th Street between 34th and 37th avenues, a Chinese-American woman in purple scrubs dances her way around the corner, a little sideways strut, making an entrance into the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s annual block party. On a sidewalk stage, when Roland Guerrero, leader of an eponymous quartet, proudly references his Honduran Garifuna heritage (which includes African, Caribbean, Central American, and European roots), the crowd applauds.

Earlier, the audience danced to a mix of jazz and salsa; now, most lounge in seats arranged on the street, neighborhood children weaving among them, an African-American newspaper publisher from Fort Greene; a silver-haired Dominican man nodding to the music from his front porch perch; and the members of a class in American citizenship, who hail from multiple countries and are here on assignment. What better education than the great jazz musician who celebrated his own birthday (the actual date is disputed) on Independence Day?

The faces on this stretch of 107th Street outside the museum have changed—no one present actually knew Louis Armstrong, but the spirit of the block that he called home for the last 28 years of his life remains largely intact, as well preserved as the laminated, aquamarine kitchen and piano-hinge drawers in the house he shared with his fourth wife, Lucille. Open to the public since fall 2003, the Louis Armstrong House Museum is an exuberantly decorated time capsule, a window into the down-to-earth life of an artist, a pivotal period of music history. It is also both a portal to a neighborhood’s past and a link to its future.

Shortly after marrying Louis, Lucille Wilson Armstrong was tipped off by a friend in her former Corona neighborhood that a house on the block was for sale, so inexpensive she could buy it with the money she’d saved as a Cotton Club dancer in Harlem. It was 1942 and the price was $8,000. Still, Lucille waited eight months to tell her husband, who generally toured 300 days of the year. Their new suburban block was home to African-American, German, and Italian working-class families, and Armstrong was delighted. Raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, he felt instantly at home in Corona.

Inside, Lucille let her inner decorator loose, adding details like hidden stereo speakers in a mirrored bathroom (a luxury for a musician who’d grown up without indoor plumbing), a Champagne-colored living room, Mylar drapes, gold-plated fixtures, and “surround wallpaper” with brightly hued patterns that matched the furniture. Some modifications were functional, like the “stair chair,” a wheelchair lift installed after Louis suffered a third heart attack at the Waldorf Astoria; some were pure fancy, like the silver-walled walk-in closet where a Pucci dress owned by Lucille still hangs. Mostly, though, it was a regular-folks respite for the internationally revered performer.

“There’s so much in ‘Wonderful World’ that brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona, New York,” Armstrong said in 1968. “Lucille and I, ever since we’re married, we’ve been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it’s just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they’re all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That’s why I can say, ‘I hear babies cry / I watch them grow / they’ll learn much more / than I’ll never know.’

Armstrong didn’t write the lyrics to what became one of the songs most indelibly associated with him (Bob Thiele and George Weiss did), but he embodied them with apparent joy here. In the garage that has since been converted into a gift shop and entryway, among the glass-cased trumpets and robes, a 1964 Ebony magazine spread titled “The Reluctant Millionaire” includes a photograph of Louis lounging at home, reading LeRoi Jones’s Blues People. Postcards for sale in the gift shop depict Armstrong on the stoop, teaching two neighbor kids to play trumpet, unable to suppress his incandescent smile. He made himself available to the block. If the light was on, you were welcome. Dizzy Gillespie, who lived around the corner on 106th, would stop by to play cards.

Famous friends of Armstrong’s still drop in. The day before the block party, workers halted construction on the forthcoming Louis Armstrong House Museum Research Collections to place a hard hat atop the head of Wynton Marsalis, who was filming a segment for ESPN. Recently Tony Bennett, who in 1970 painted the remarkable portrait of Armstrong displayed in his second-floor study—signed Benedetto—came by to borrow the painting for an exhibit.

Many of the staff and volunteer tour guides live in Queens, too, among them trained trumpeters and more recent fans of Armstrong’s. Adriana Filstrup, director of visitor services, is a longtime jazz fan who initially volunteered at the museum, leading tours in Spanish. For six years, Frederick “Junior” Armstead has served as the museum’s beloved caretaker, living just a block away—as close as Dizzy Gillespie once did. “I love music—all music,” Virginia Ferreira, a volunteer guide originally from Paraguay, tells me. Her favorite Louis Armstrong song is “Blueberry Hill.” “I like to imagine him walking this neighborhood, these streets. Around the corner, the church at 103rd Street? That was Lucille’s church. Joe’s Artistic Barber on 106th, that was where Louis got his hair cut.”

Franklin Diaz, an electrical contractor who grew up on the block, remembers looking out for Lucille’s royal blue Cadillac coupe when he was a kid playing in the street. “If we saw a blue car coming, we’d elbow each other trying to get there first,” he says. “‘Cause she might need help with her groceries, and if she did, it was a dollar tip, and this was late ’70s, early ’80s. The funny part about it was, she would give each of us the opportunity to carry a bag. So we each got a dollar but we always did that race.”

Sometimes Lucille invited them in, too. “She had the leopard carpet from the garage going all the way up the stairs, and the bathroom covered in walls of mirrors,” Diaz says. “We loved it because it was so fancy; we’d never seen anything like that.” Though he lives close enough to watch the block parties from his porch, Diaz hasn’t been inside the house since those days. Still, he says, “I’m glad they kept it as a house. Whenever I tell people that I live on Louis Armstrong’s block, they forget whatever they’re talking about and the conversation becomes about Louis Armstrong.”

Today the block is preparing for a homecoming. Before Lucille Armstrong died in 1983, she deeded the property to the city of New York with the intent of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The museum, a version of the house preserved much as it was when Lucille and Louis were alive, is administered by Queens College.

For decades the house stood empty. Bessie “Baby Ruth” Williams, Lucille’s housekeeper since 1973, continued to clean and preserve the house, eventually serving as the museum’s first caretaker and manager. In 1977, it was designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark. In 1991, recently retired director Michael Cogswell and archivists carried out 72 shipping cartons of Armstrong’s manuscripts, artifacts, and other memorabilia, currently housed in Flushing at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts. In 2017, the Louis Armstrong Education Center broke ground across the street from the house museum. The 14,000-square-foot, $23 million building is being designed by New York City-based Caples Jefferson Architects. When complete, it will include an exhibition gallery, a 68-seat jazz club, and, on the second floor, an archive for those artifacts.

Facing the house museum, which was built in 1910, it will make for an oddly modern mirror across the street. Except for the museum buildings and Guaros, a small restaurant down the street that serves Dominican home cooking, the block is residential, traditional. Plastic awnings hang over some windows and chairs rest permanently on front porches. The residents are working class, just as the Armstrongs’ neighbors were, though over the years the block’s demographics have shifted: Today it is predominantly home to people with Dominican, Ecuadorian, and Chinese roots.

It’s one of the few blocks I can think of in New York where the arrival of a millionaire didn’t cause a wave of gentrification, I suggest to Franklin Diaz. Surrounded by extended family, he and his wife and kids live in his childhood home. “Gentrification I’m not worried about,” he says, standing on his front porch. “But there’s more people living in [some of these old houses] where it used to just be one family. I used to come home and no matter what time of day I would find parking. Now there are people coming and going, you don’t know who they are. There are only like five houses that are original, only a few that are original-original.” Diaz motions at a friend of his son’s standing on the porch, grins approvingly. “Him, his father’s not original-original, but he’s kind of original, like back in the day.”

Louis died in 1971, days after celebrating his 71st birthday at a party in the garden lot adjacent to their home. After Lucille’s death in 1983, the last true original-original died in 2011. Selma Heraldo had lived all her 88 years next door to what would become the Armstrongs’ home and was the neighborhood’s last human link to them both. Heraldo’s home is a time capsule too, currently serving as office space for museum staff, and, during the summer jazz concerts and block party, a green room for the band. Louis called her “Little Dynamite” even though, at 5 feet 6 inches, he was not much taller than she; the museum programmers relied on her for public speaking and impromptu recollections.

“She used to sit on her porch and say hello to everyone and tell them stories about when she used to travel with Louis,” says Melania Fernández, a friend of Heraldo’s whose colorful apartment is directly across the street, overlooking the education center construction site. “Every time there was a party she’d get so excited, she’d get all dressed up.”

A week after the museum’s block party, the stretch of 107th Street appeared more like a church Sunday than the Friday before Labor Day. Junior Armstead stopped me to say hello; he’d changed out of his work clothes into a navy blue dress shirt and several of his signature custom-made rings. A longtime neighbor suffered a heart attack over the weekend—Tomas Tavarez, an older Dominican-American man whom I’d noticed watching the music from his porch just a week earlier.

It was the passing of another original, and half the block, it seemed, was getting dressed to pay respects at nearby Rivera Funeral Home. “He was a neighbor, he was a good guy,” Angel, Dominican-American club promoter and a resident of the block since 1993, told me. I noticed that Angel, who didn’t give his last name, was wearing the same outfit when I met him last week. A kind of uniform, I wondered? He smiled and shook his head, glancing down at the gold crucifix around his neck and his neatly pressed Louis Armstrong T-shirt. “I wear it on special occasions,” he said.

A week earlier, I’d asked jazz historian Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s director of research collections, what it was like to spend so much time with the tangible pieces of Armstrong’s life. Riccardi is also the author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, a biography focusing on the last quarter-century of Armstrong’s life, and around the museum he is known as “the Ricky-pedia” of Armstrong lore. One of the sublime and surprising treasures in the boxes of artifacts carried away from the house is Armstrong’s collection of 7-inch reel-to-reel tapes, whose cases he covered in handmade collages—made up of pictures of his own supremely smiling face, newspaper and magazine headlines, cutouts from greeting cards and movie stills, his own hand lettering.

The covers are collected in Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong, and they’ll all return to 107th Street when the education center is complete. The tapes themselves, digitized by the archive, include transfers of Armstrong’s own recordings, and mixtapes of songs from his vast and varied record collection of 2,000 albums that he listened to on a Marantz console in his paneled office, across from his Tony Bennett portrait. “But about half are just him talking,” Riccardi told me. “Everyday, regular stuff. I’ve listened to him telling stories, or being interviewed, talking to his band, having conversations with Lucille, having arguments with Lucille.

“There are airplanes in the background sometimes, and Louis commenting about being on the flight path. Those are the times I feel closest to him, like he’s right there on the block,” Riccardi said. “You can hear street noise, birds outside the window, hear kids playing in the street.” It started to sound like the verse of a very familiar song.

Rebecca Bengal lives in Brooklyn and writes fiction and nonfiction. Recent and forthcoming publications include the Guardian, Aperture, Vogue, Bookforum, the Paris Review, Oxford American, and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Chris Mottalini is a photographer based in New York City. Much of his work deals with the photographic preservation of Modernist architecture and its place in the American landscape. His most recent book is Land of Smiles.