December 2003 By Nat Hentoff
Armstrong House, Alive and Well
On the bright, crisp morning of October 15, Jon Faddis stood on the balcony of the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens—outside Louis' den. With customary clarity and aplomb he played Louis' a capella chorus on "West End Blues" to officially open this National Historic Landmark and New York City Landmark. The block, now named Louis Armstrong Place, was jammed with Louis' longtime neighbors and their schoolkids, musicians and people of all colors, ages and classes from this country, Germany, Poland and other lands reached by Louis' horn, voice and spirit.
Further animating the celebration was 85-year-old Phoebe Jacobs, vice president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, and a vital figure on the New York jazz scene for the 50 years I've been part of it, and before. Phoebe, a close friend of Louis and Lucille Armstrong, commanded the crowd: "Don't let anybody tell you Louis is dead. He's not!"
Jon Faddis, speaking of the depth of Louis' impact, told of when Armstrong, in 1953, came to play in the Belgian Congo where, as is not unusual there, a fierce civil war was underway. "The factions," said Jon, "stopped the war to listen to Louis' music. We could definitely use Louis Armstrong now." As Stanley Crouch of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation added, "He was a man who represented America as well as it has ever been represented."
The redbrick house, which Lucille Armstrong bought in 1943, was seen for the first, utterly surprising time by Louis when he came off one of his long road trips. He lived there until he died on July 6, 1971, in the master bedroom's wall-to-wall bed. He never wanted to leave the neighborhood, where his home was of the same modest scale as the other houses in that section of Corona.
Selma Heraldo, who lived in the house next door for 80 years, told Newsday: "I didn't regard him as a celebrity, just a plain human being. He told me he came from poor and didn't believe in putting on airs." Louis often sat on the front steps, playing his horn for the neighborhood kids, and when the ice-cream man came by, Louis did the right thing by the boys and girls. In Queens, named after Armstrong are P.S. 143 and middle school I.S. 227. Every morning in the latter school, the kids begin the day serenaded by Louis' recording of "What a Wonderful World."
Inside the Louis Armstrong House, visitors can hear, in three of the rooms, excerpts from Louis' expansive collection of recorded tapes, with their personally decorated boxes. (They can also be heard at satchmo.net). At Queens College's archival center (718-997-3670), six rooms contain Louis' lovingly assembled collection of 1,600 recordings; 650 reel-to-reel tapes with his collages on the boxes; 86 scrapbooks; thousands of photographs, along with correspondence, manuscripts, scores of awards and five trumpets.
Louis funded and founded the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation in 1969. ("I wanted to give back to the world some of the goodness the world gave to me.") It has provided financial support for a wide-ranging variety of educational projects in schools, including scholarships. There is also the Louis Armstrong Music Therapy Program, at the pediatric center of Beth Israel Hospital in New York.
Louis believed in the healing powers of music. "He once told me," Jacobs recalls, "to send some recordings to an insane asylum in New Orleans. Not just his recordings, but a variety of recordings, including classical music. And he also had recordings sent to a labor room in a hospital." He wanted to nurture women's spirits as they were giving birth.
The Louis Armstrong House is at 34-56 107th Street, Corona Queens, New York, NY 11368 (718-478-8274 and satchmo.net for information on guided tours, hours and the gift shop). An invaluable guide to the house and to Louis, in and out of the house, is Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo (Collectors Press Inc., P.O. Box 230986, Portland, OR 97281. 800-423-1848, collectorspress.com). The author is Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives, Queens College. Future generations will owe a large debt to Cogswell for the dedication he has given to preserving these dimensions of Louis' legacy.
Among the stories, correspondence and photos from Louis' private collection in the book, there is this Armstrong quote from 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus was preventing black children from entering Little Rock public schools in defiance of the Supreme Court while President Dwight Eisenhower hesitated to intervene. Louis publicly called Faubus "an uneducated plowboy," and said of Eisenhower that he was "two-faced" and "had no guts." Later, Louis canceled an official U.S. tour of the Soviet Union: "The way they're treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell."
As Crouch said as the ribbon was cut on the entrance to the Louis Armstrong House: "Louis had that pure human feeling." All of it.
Originally published in December 2003