Podcast Transcript

Speaker 1: Takin a walk.

Speaker 2: You still feel their spirit here, you know. Some people say it almost feels like Louis and Lucille. Maybe yeah, maybe they’re grocery shopping right now. Maybe they’re having lunch and we’re just kind of keeping the house of warm until they get back.

Speaker 3: But the living room very musical room.

Speaker 2: Above the piano is a pencil sketch of Toscanni, the great classical conductor. There’s a Leroy Neiman painting of Gerry Mulligan, the great baritone saxophonist. Louis himself saw that at Hammer Galleries in the early nineteen sixties and carried it all the way back here to Corona.

Speaker 4: Welcome to the Takin a Walk Podcast with your host Buzz Knight. On past episodes, Buzz has walked through the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Folk Americana Hall as well, and on this episode he heads to Corona, Queens, New York, to the Louis Armstrong House Museum with Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections. You’ll love this take on a National treasure. Next with Takin a Walk and Buzz Knight.

Speaker 5: Well, Ricky, thanks for taking a walk with me.

Speaker 3: I’m so thrilled to be Here.

Speaker 2: Is a beautiful day in Corona, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, and no one else i’d rather be with Buzz.

Speaker 5: This could be fun and I consider myself very lucky as I was making the trip out here to be doing what I’m doing, and I think you in your career feel the same way.

Speaker 3: I would say. So yeah.

Speaker 2: I mean, I’ve been a Louis Armstrong fan since the age of fifteen, which was twenty eight years ago. And we are about to walk through the front door of Louis Armstrong’s house where I have been working for the last fourteen years.

Speaker 3: This is magical. It almost sounds like he’s practicing upstairs. Look at this. So yeah.

Speaker 2: Right now we’re in the living room of the Armstrong house and everything is pretty much as is. You know, no one has lived here since Louis’s Armstrong. And right off the bat, you know Lucille, the beautiful Mrs Armstrong, Lady Armstrong, her nickname was brown Sugar. She’s there to greet us, and we would not be here without Lucille Armstrong. She was the fourth Mrs Armstrong, which is a subject for a whole different interview.

Speaker 3: But Lucille and Louis.

Speaker 2: They married in October nineteen forty two, and their honeymoon was five straight months of one nighters. And Lucille said, this is not what I signed up for. And so she had spent part of her childhood in Corona, and she was living in the Bronx at that time, but she was friends with the Heraldo family next door. They told her the house was for sale thirty four fifty six. And I’m gonna let Lucille tell you what happened next.

Speaker 6: And I told Luisa, let’s get a house. Because I was raised in house always, you know, I’ve always lived in the suburbs. So I asked lood it and he said, what do you want a house for?

Speaker 3: We’ll be traveling.

Speaker 6: I’ll get a hotel room. When I wasn’t about to be cooped up in the hotel room, and so I said, this guy doesn’t know what.

Speaker 3: The house is all about.

Speaker 6: I bought the house myself and didn’t tell him, so I’ve been I had had the house eight months before I told Louis, eight whole months. So finally I told him two weeks before we went to go back to New York, and I told him, I said, pop s that’s something to tell you. So he said, well, no, I wanna be done now. I said, musn’t done anything that I don’t. I don’t think you’re gonna be unhappy. But what I’ve done? So I said, yes, I bought a house in a little town called Corona. He had never heard of Corona, and I’d come from Corona.

Speaker 3: And I said, well, how why did you pay for it?

Speaker 6: You didn’t ask me for any money. I said, what, you have to remember that I had been working for thirteen years. I had no money saved up, and so when I approached you about a house and you was so down on it, I didn’t ask you and I just took my money and I put the down patent on the house, and I could keep in the payments.

Speaker 7: Hup.

Speaker 6: So he said you have I said, yes, that’s well, now that you know about how she can take the payments over.

Speaker 2: So the asking price in March nineteen forty three was eight thousand dollars. I think the mortgage payments were about twenty five dollars.

Speaker 3: Of my that’s amazing. I love that story. That is so brilliant. It reminded me.

Speaker 8: I have to say a little bit of my mother who wanted to get a particular bedroom set, and my father would have nothing to do with it. She just went and bought it herself, and he slept on the couch for like a month and they didn’t speak, and she said.

Speaker 3: Fine, that’s it. Yeah, that’s it.

Speaker 2: At at some point you just have to go with the fluor it’s beautiful, and so yeah, Lucille was a cotton club dancer, so she had a career in show business, but she actually gave it all up to kind.

Speaker 3: Of being missus Louis Armstrong.

Speaker 2: And as much as she loved the house, it didn’t hold a candle to how Lewis felt about it. The first time he saw it, he actually didn’t even believe it was his. The cab driver pulled up and Armstrong told the cab driver, he goes, oh, man, quit kidding, and take me to the address I wrote down here. And so Lucille opened the door and said come on in, and once he came in, that was it. Because I mean, his whole childhood was poverty, living in New Orleans, you know, outhouse in the backyard, no indoor plumbing, barefoot, not knowing where his next meal was going to come from. Then he becomes a star, but he’s living out of suitcases, living in hotel rooms, living in apartments, and so this, you know, to have an actual home. And as the years went on, he had enough fame and enough money that he could have lived anywhere, but he refused. This was a working class neighborhood, an integrated neighborhood, and they were real people, no celebrities, and lots of kids and all that kind of stuff, and so Lewis just fell in love with the neighborhood.

Speaker 3: Lucille.

Speaker 2: After a while she started getting the itch, maybe we can move to an estate in Long Island or a penthouse in Manhattan.

Speaker 3: He would not budge, and so the house the way we see it today.

Speaker 2: What Lucille would do is she would call her interior decorator every five years and they would start knocking down walls and putting up wallpaper and chandeliers and everything else. And Lewis was fine with them as long he would go out on tour and come back and be like, oh, oh, you know.

Speaker 3: This room doesn’t look the same.

Speaker 2: But if that’s the happy wife, happy life. So that made Lucille happy, and then she really earned her stripes. You could say after Lewis died, because she was the one who had the house declared a National Historic Landmark. And I found a newspaper clipping from August twentieth, nineteen seventy one. Louis died July sixth, nineteen seventy one, and she’s already telling the press. You know, one day I’m going to give the house to the City of New York and then people from around the world can come and.

Speaker 3: See how Lewis lived.

Speaker 2: And so she sadly didn’t live long enough to see it happen, but she kind of gave us the blueprint, and so the house today, the museum.

Speaker 3: Across the street. We think she’d be very happy. Oh this is fantastic. Wow. I love how it’s decorated.

Speaker 2: Oh yeah, it’s We have people who visit who aren’t even the biggest jazz fans. They just kind of want to see a perfectly preserved late sixties early seventies home, you know, the wallpaper, all the stuff. We get a lot of comments. People come in they feel like it’s their grandparents’ house. Yeah, and you still feel their spirit here, you know. Some people say it almost feels like Lewis Lucilla maybe yeah, maybe they’re grocery shopping right now, maybe they’re having lunch and we’re just kind of, you know, keeping the house warm until they get back.

Speaker 3: But the living room, very musical room.

Speaker 2: Above the piano is a pencil sketch of Toscanini, the great classical conductor. There’s a Leroy Neeman painting of Jerry Mulligan, the great baritone saxophonist. Lewis himself saw that at Hammer Galleries in the early nineteen sixties and carried it all the way back here to Corona. And then there’s all the knickknacks and stuff, all everything that they would go out on tour and bring back, you know, gondola from Italy and oz from France, statue from Africa. So it really is kind of like the Ambassador stature room as well. But for me, I mean, my domain are the archives. So we have the world’s largest archives for any single jazz musician.

Speaker 3: And the crown jewel.

Speaker 2: Are these real to reel tapes where Lewis bought us first tape recorder nineteen fifty and from December nineteen fifty until the night before he passed away, he made about seven hundred and fifty reel to reel tapes, and half of them are mixtapes where he would just grab records, turn on the radio. He wanted to hear all kinds of music. The other half are the spoken word tapes where it’s just him seal musicians sometimes he’s alone, and those that’s the goal. And I’m going to play a clip right now of Lewis and Lucille in this room. You’ll hear music on in the background from probably this Grundig Majestic stereo console. But Lewis is giving the date in the clip, and Lucille, the helpful wife, is there to correct.

Speaker 9: Him at home and in February twenty six, nineteen fifty six. Correction February six, nineteen twenty six, i’d have Lucy, she’s fixed.

Speaker 3: Pardon me, folks, I’m messing with my eye, you know, flying the wall moment.

Speaker 2: But he has the self awareness he says, pardon me, folks. There’s nobody in the room with them, and so that’s the key to me. We have a tape which we don’t play on tour, where Lewis and Lucille get into a knockdown, drag out Argument’s like five o’clock in the morning. They’re both a little tipsy and they’re just going to yell at each other, cursing at each other. Lucille does not know he’s recording it, and when she finds out he is, she tells him to erase it, and he says, no, it’s for posterity, And to me, it’s those two words for posterity. People ask why is he making tapes, why is he making scrap books? Why does Lucille keep in the house. They knew, they knew that one day. You know, people who weren’t even born yet, like myself, you know they were going to be interested in Louis Armstrong. And why not be in charge of your own story, you know, tell your own story and your own words and let the future come to you instead of reading books and trying to piece together the facts.

Speaker 3: No, he left it all for us. It’s a gift. It is a gift. So that’s the living room.

Speaker 2: We’re gonna walk down the hallway here, and the next room is the bathroom. I mentioned growing up in New Orleans, Lewis had no indoor plumbing, and so when you see this bathroom, it’s kind of like, oh, he’s come a long way. When We’ve got mirrors from the floor of the ceiling. We’ve got gold fixtures everywhere, the gold swans, and it’s just like, yeah, that’s Lucille and the interior decorator as well. For you know, from a size perspective, maybe it’s a typical queen’s bathroom, but then you take one look at it and go, oh, no, there’s nothing typical about this. And what is that in the corner of the Oh, that’s probably I would say, a gigantic bottle of cologne. It looks like yeah, and we have all the original stuff. That’s the amazing thing, the fact that no one’s lived here. Everything you see from the colognees upstairs. When we go, you’ll see Lucille’s gloves, all that stuff. You know, it’s all laid out. It’s just meticulous. We are now entering the dining room. This is where Lewis would eat his favorite meal. Do you know what his favorite meal was?

Speaker 3: I don’t.

Speaker 2: Red beans and rice, pure New Orleans food. Lewis used to sign his letters red beans and ricely yours. And he tells a great story when he was courting Lucille, he said, I took her finely manicured hand, looked her in the eye and said, can you cook red beans and rice? So she needed some tips from her mother. But once she cooked her for him, you know, the rest is history. This Asian motif in this room was actually done in Lucille’s widowhood. But it’s actually kind of neat because she must have found this painting. And the translation we’ve been told is Heaven on Earth, and it’s a painting of a Japanese style garden and there’s musicians, there’s dancers, and sure enough, Lucille being a dancer, Louis being a musician, and next door to the house, Louis’s last gift to the world, Louis and Lucille bought an abandoned property and.

Speaker 3: Turned it into a Japanese guarden.

Speaker 2: So that’s where we have our outdoor events and concerts and stuff like that.

Speaker 3: So I think this is kind of summing all of that up.

Speaker 2: And we do have one more audio clip in this room, and this is Lewis four days before he passed away in nineteen seventy one, saying grace at this very.

Speaker 7: Table a love makers, thank move would about to receive. That’s not a body I see, amen, I didn’t see man.

Speaker 2: I say, amen, sense of humor right to the end. But you can’t have a dining room without a kitchen. And this is everybody’s favorite room. This kind of all blue, all turquoise jet age, world’s fair jetsons, kind of kitchen of the future. Apparently the shade of blue was Lucille’s favorite. So you got the cabinets, but you also get the clock up there, the sub zero refrigerator, even the dishwasher down here, which I love has daily use in parting mode for when things get out of hand. Lucille love to keep things streamlines. And you get the can openers mounted on the countertop, you get the blender mounted and over there an he guesses in these drawers, there’s two hidden drawers. One of them has paper towels and the other one tinfoil. Look at that, and again you know, just life of luxury here. These were actually wooden cabinets that were lacquered. Piano hinges a little musical touch there as well. And the Armstrongs were both very short. Lewis was five to six, Lucille was five two. But if you notice there’s a chair here that flips over and becomes a step ladder.

Speaker 3: Oh yeah, so they could reach all the stuff on the higher shelves.

Speaker 2: And I have to point out these six burner stove with a double oven, and this little placard reads custom made by Crown for mister and missus Lewis Armstrong.

Speaker 3: Awesome.

Speaker 2: So we’ve had World of Interiors magazine and all these kind of different non jazz entities come out, and it’s just like they take one look at this kitchen and say, oh my goodness, this is this is it.

Speaker 3: And then of course we have some bubbly here.

Speaker 2: Oh yeah, now the champagne there’s still you know, it’s still ready to be popped. And this room over here, this little breakfast nook. When they actually moved in, this was a two family house and Lucille moved her mother in upstairs, and so Louis Lucilla just stayed to the first floor, and so this was their original bedroom. But eventually they turned into this little breakfast nook. I hear the doorbell ring, and that means the next tour is coming in.

Speaker 3: So let’s sneak upstairs. Look the more private side of the house. Sounds good. Could not have timed it anymore better.

Speaker 2: Walk past the guest bedroom with the psychedelic motif where the day bed magically matches the wallpaper on the walls and ceiling, and.

Speaker 3: That the picture is pretty Yes, calculate.

Speaker 2: That was originally on the cover of Life magazine. A Philip Paulsman photo from nineteen sixty six.

Speaker 3: This is the bedroom.

Speaker 2: Where Armstrong always bragged about his wall to wall bed, which is what he called his king size bed.

Speaker 3: This is where he passed.

Speaker 2: Away early hours of July sixth, nineteen seventy one. So it’s kind of a sacred spot for Lucille. This was her kind of prayer corner over here, ever copied the Bible print of Dolly’s crucifixion, some religious figurines from around the world. Lewis, anytime he was asked about religion, he would say he was raised a Baptist, he wore a star David around his neck, and he was good friends with the pope, so.

Speaker 3: He had all bases covered. And what is this I wish I knew. Oh well, if it has something that with Lewis, I got you covered.

Speaker 2: But Lucille’s little knickknacks and all that, I don’t know what we’re looking at.

Speaker 3: It looks like a dog and a couple of young people enjoying the feast. I’m sure maybe again, probably something they picked up in their travels. But that’s the thing.

Speaker 2: Up to this point, almost everything we’ve seen is Lucille’s fingerprints. Yeah, this is the way she wanted it.

Speaker 3: Because Louis for the.

Speaker 2: Forties and fifties into the sixties, he was on the road three hundred days a year.

Speaker 3: He loved coming back here. But I mean he was on it was a road warrior.

Speaker 2: But this next room, which is the last room and really the main event of the house, this is all him. This is the den, This is the original man cave. This is where he would make the real to real tapes. He would design collages, he would cut out news clippings, scotch tape into the boxes, and then Armstrong had a complete archivist’s mentality. Every time he made a real tape, he would number it and then he would catalog it so he would handwrite the contents. The TV show Martin Luther King’s Funeral, Louis Armstrong was all stars, and so as an archivist, he made my job very easy because he was very thorough that way.

Speaker 3: And we have some great audio clips here.

Speaker 2: The first clip is him in nineteen sixty five actually showing off this book, and then he talks about how Lucille gave him this room. Growing up in Orleans, they would have slept in a room like this. But then he talks about the important of listening to all kinds of music, including the Beatles.

Speaker 6: I was pretty index index are all the.

Speaker 3: Numbers and get a number.

Speaker 10: And that my Lucille fixed something I never had in my life before.

Speaker 7: She gave me a room and made a den out of it.

Speaker 3: You know what I mean That that that really knocked me out because he couldn’t afford no den and never had a day. Dude, we better sleep in that room.

Speaker 11: I would have got all my table out of the world and just pick out of what I want to hear. Well, it’s not the fields good. I mean, I don’t ask much in life. I mean because those are the the needed things. She know that would be my life and music. So when I’m in here, every record I ever made, or I can do looking a little bit and put.

Speaker 10: My finger on it, or my end of views, I got them all on tape and I buy a record.

Speaker 11: That’s why I tell you, That’s why I tell you, I buy every buy his records. At every interview I am and every show I do.

Speaker 3: It’s I’ll tell him whatever it is.

Speaker 11: It’s a company that sends the whole show on tape at my house.

Speaker 3: And I they st you know what I mean, I got the Beatles.

Speaker 10: To think about a Beatle.

Speaker 3: I say, they great, they they got beat there, you know what I mean. And it’s all right, Okay, that’s all right. I mean they get a haircut.

Speaker 7: You see.

Speaker 11: Now we had to be not too pussure into one kind of music. You got to appreciate all kinds of music. That’s what I’m trying to put in your head.

Speaker 3: Listen to all kinds of music.

Speaker 2: I love that because when it’s guests there, they’re trying to say, oh, if only they you know, if only the Beatles would get a haircut, you know that kind of stuff.

Speaker 3: He doesn’t take debate.

Speaker 2: He’s like, no, they got a little beat there, and you know, listen to all kinds of music. And he really believed that we have this record collection in the archives. I mean, you name it, King Oliver and jilliy Old Morton, of course, but he has Miles Davis, he has Staloneus monk. He has Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, tons of opera and Rico Caruso. He would go to South America bring back tango records, go to Ghana and bring back high life records.

Speaker 3: So he had huge ears and we have to have some music in this room.

Speaker 2: He loved warming up on trumpet in his den while listening to whatever was on hystereo. And so this next clip is him listening to an Italian singer, Ray Martino. And first again Lewis is addressing us, the imaginary audience, telling us where he is, where he’s going.

Speaker 3: But the Italian pop record has.

Speaker 2: An instrumental interlude, so why not fill it with the sounds of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

Speaker 10: I’m just recalling and while I’ll just catch it, We’ll leave tomorrow night eleven fifteen for Miami, Florid for two weeks not playing it’s my last night at home.

Speaker 3: So here’s the part of the record now, Darling, cheval ma boku. It’s beautiful. It’s so beautiful.

Speaker 2: Oh, I have a smile on my face that is that it’s unbelievable. So did he And that’s a perfect segue. This painting looking us in the eye right here.

Speaker 3: Can you read the.

Speaker 2: Signature Benedetto Benedetto you know who that is, you know, artist also from Queens from Astoria, also a.

Speaker 3: Singer recent Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett.

Speaker 2: Yes, Tony Bennett painted that for Lewis, gave it to him in London in nineteen seventy and Lewis said, man, you out Rembrandted, Rembrandt.

Speaker 3: Wow, that’s amazing. Yeah, they were close friends. I mean the whole room everywhere looking albums up.

Speaker 2: There these photos you know, of course it’s Lewis Lucillo, but there’s also some beautiful photos of Lewis and the neighborhood kids. You know, they would come over. They would see the band bus come back from a tour and all the kids would come around like the pied Piper, and you know, Lewis would call over the ice cream man and buy out the whole truck and invite the kids in. They would watch Westerns on the TV down there in the living room. And that’s really kind of what kept him uh in this neighborhood. So, of course these days his most iconic songs, but a wonderful world and people are always asking what is the inspiration?

Speaker 3: What was he thinking about? And the answer is this neighborhood in Corona, Queens. Yeah, so wonderful.

Speaker 12: Well, it’s a zillion people dout that tune the way I did it when I felt it, because, uh, it’s so much in wonderful world.

Speaker 3: That brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona. Uh, New York whose long island? Uh? Everybody know where that is.

Speaker 13: And Lucialan and I ever since we married, we’ve been right fas and that black and everybody keeps their little.

Speaker 1: Homes up like we do.

Speaker 13: And it’s like one big family. I saw three generations going and then the and they’re all with their children, grandchildren. They come back to see.

Speaker 10: Uncle Setch Moore and I’m Lucia, that’s why it’s your babies cry.

Speaker 7: I watched them still alone, much more than all.

Speaker 13: The kids, and I got pictures of him when they was five section seven years old.

Speaker 3: It is a wonderful one.

Speaker 9: Yeah.

Speaker 3: So that that song is his love letter to the Corona’s It’s pretty beautiful. And one final clip.

Speaker 2: This is from August nineteen seventy, less than a year before he passed away. It’s him sitting behind his desk, kind of summing up his entire life.

Speaker 3: We call it his philosophy of life.

Speaker 7: That’s my story, folks. I guess I’m stuck with it. I usually say nice things also about human beings if they deserve it.

Speaker 14: I never wanted to be anymore than I am, and what I don’t have, I don’t need it. And I’ve always loved and I always lived a normal life, which I appreciate very much. And I’ve always loved everybody still do.

Speaker 3: Yeah, So that’s that’s the way.

Speaker 2: That’s everything simp the life so beautiful. So that’s where the tour of the armstring us ends. But just to catch up on the history. So that was August nineteen seventy. Lewis passes away July seventy one. July sixth, nineteen seventy one. As I mentioned downstairs, Lucillum immediately has this vision, I’m going to leave the house of the City of New York. A year or two later, she’s talking about I’m going to open up a memorial museum. I have all these things, I’ve got to get them all preserved. And so she passed away in nineteen eighty three. And she did as told as she left the house of the City of New York, and the City of New York, so, well, who’s going to run this? And so they kicked it over to the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Department of Cultural Affairs along with the Armstrong Estate, they chose Queen’s College nearby in.

Speaker 3: Flushing to administer it.

Speaker 2: So the first order of business, all the archival materials, Lewis’s tapes, collages, trumpets, writings were all taken out brought to Queen’s College and the Lewis Armstrong Archives opened in nineteen ninety four. And so the man who opened it, his name is Michael Cogswell. He was hired as the archivist that in nineteen ninety five he was made the director of the Armstrong House and so he oversaw a one point eight million dollar restoration to turn this into a museum. So this month is actually our twentieth anniversary, and we opened October fifteen, two thousand and three, and so we’ve welcomed tens of thousands of people from around the world since then. But you’ve come on the right time, because in nineteen ninety eight there was an abandoned lot across the street, and Michael had division. He’s like, that lot might be important someday, and so the Armstrong Estate, the Lewis Armstrong Educational Foundation, they paid for it, and it was just an empty lot for years and years, and finally in the early two thousands, Michael started talking, you know, I think that could be a visitors sent one day and that could be the new home of the archive exhibition space.

Speaker 3: The whole thing years went by.

Speaker 2: Michael spearheaded the raising of about twenty six million dollars, and every delay imaginable just plagued that building. There was a zoning variance, there was obviously a global pandemic. Sadly, Michael, who opened the archives, opened the house and got that almost to the finish line.

Speaker 3: He passed away in twenty twenty.

Speaker 2: Jerry Chasin, who was the father in law of our mutual friend Larry Miller, he was a big, big supporter of the mission. He passed away last year. So it’s been tough because it’s been so long. I was hired in two thousand and nine and told all the building should be open twenty eleven, twenty twelve, So it took a long time. We would not be here without Michael, without Jerry, without a million people who got us to this point. But coincidentally, on July sixth, twenty twenty three, fifty two years to the day Lewis Armstrong passed away, we opened up the Lewis Armstrong Center. And so if you want, let’s walk across the street and I’ll show you around.

Speaker 3: We’ll do that.

Speaker 1: Yep, we’ll be right back with more of the Taking a Walk podcast. Welcome back to the Taking a Walk podcast.

Speaker 3: All right, So this is it.

Speaker 2: This is the building twenty five years in the making, and the first thing that hits you when you walk into Lewis Armstrong Center is it’s a beautiful mural of Lewis and Lucille with the great Sphinx of Giza in nineteen sixty one and our curator, the great pianist and composer Jason Moran, he called because habit here to stay and chose this image and I think it’s perfect because you know, this guy will conquered the world and here he is with one of the seven Wonders of the world playing his trumpet. But when he wanted to come home, this is where he came. So you know, it’s the two experiences. We’ve got the new building, state of the art, all that stuff, but then right across the street, the down home house that he called his own for the last twenty eight years of his life. She’s looking at him with such admiration. Yeah, love she was his biggest fan. So right through this way over here perfect that Lovey and.

Speaker 3: Rose starts playing as we’re talking about Lewis and the C’s love.

Speaker 2: But this is the exhibit area, and so this is something that we were never able to do in the house where we were just kind of stuck with the house there. And so as we were talking about what a wonderful world right when you walk in, got the Gold record, which actually came out in the late eighties at a time when they gave out the Gold Record, the Gold CD and the Gold cassette. But then a six page letter actually more of a manuscript that Lewis wrote towards the end of his life called our Neighborhood, and it’s just like a love letter to the Corona saying, you know how they lived here for twenty nine years, we’ve been living in the house. We’ve seen just about three generations come up on this particular block. One hundred and seventh Street between thirty fourth and thirty seventh Avenue, and he goes on and on and by getting Chinese food at the Dragon Seat Restaurant, his Cadillac car oozing out of the drive. Boy, their schnauzers, trumpet and trinket, and he writes, you know, when the two of them start barking together, oh boy, what a duet. So that’s the first thing that’s to you know, we got the Sphinx in Egypt and other aside brother then Corona on this side. And then our curator mentioned Jason Moran. He had to go through the entire archives and tell a story, and so he chose to go with four main themes. So there’s four cylindrical cases. The first case is roots and so this is Armstrong in New Orleans.

Speaker 3: We have these tinted.

Speaker 2: Portraits of Lewis with his mother and his sister when he was about eighteen years old. Lewis’s father, Willie. The crazy part is these were hanging in Lewis’s sister’s home up until the early nineteen seventies. And we have an interview with Lewis’s sister and when she goes, yeah, she said, I just brought those paintings up to Lucille on July fourth. She wants to put them in a museum, and so, again Lucille’s foresight. They didn’t make it into the museum until fifty years later, but at least they ended up in Queen’s. But we have Joe King Oliver, who was Lewis’s big mentor his wife Lil Isn’t that photo his second wife for lil she was really the architect of his career. The Waife’s home, which is where he learned how to play. It was like an orphanage, you know. We have a photo at Lewis annotate. We have a brick from the Waife’s home, but also his adopted son Clarence. And then a photograph of Lewis on the riverboats, which was kind of his music education school. He was not able to go to college or Berkeley or study jazz, but three seasons on the riverboats really sharpened him as a reader and performer and everything else. And then each one of the cases has about a ten minute video with lots of archival.

Speaker 3: Footage and narration and the whole thing. The next case, I mean, this is kind of the main event here. Tools the tools.

Speaker 2: Of the trade here, and of course the first thing that hits you in the middle is Lewis’s trumpet.

Speaker 3: Now we have seven trumpets.

Speaker 2: Oh and there’s Lewis Armstrong lipsab from Franz Schwartz just popped up on screen. So we have seven trumpets. The one we chose, or Jason chose to put in this case, was actually given to Lewis in nineteen thirty four from King George the Fifth in England. And the funny part is Lewis played it for years. He was enamored with it, but he was also the most generous soul on the planet. And one day he was hanging out backstage with Lyman Vunk, the third Trumpeter and Charlie Barnett’s orchestra, and Vunk was like, man, Pops, that’s a beautiful horn, and Lewis said.

Speaker 3: Oh, do you want it?

Speaker 2: I need a new one, and he gave away the King George trumpet. So it became Lyman Bunk’s prize possession. But he passed away in nineteen ninety one and a few years later his wife found us, Yeah, he wanted you guys to have this, and so she brought it on the subway.

Speaker 3: She had it in a brown paper bag.

Speaker 2: She got off on the seven train, handed it to our director Michael Cogswell and said, all right, thanks.

Speaker 3: So I got right back on the subway.

Speaker 2: So we had it restored and now it is on display. But we also have a fractured copy signed by Lewis of West End Blues, kind of maybe his most important trumpet solo.

Speaker 3: I’m recording an interview, sorry, but yeah, he’s upstate.

Speaker 2: A fractured copy of west End Blues, which was probably Armstrong’s most important trumpet solo of his entire career from nineteen twenty eight. But also, you know, we’ve got beautiful portraits Lewis with the Luis Russell Orchestra in California, in London nineteen thirty two. One of Lewis’s scrapbook pages from nineteen thirty one where he would cut out newspaper clippings and everything else.

Speaker 3: And also a book This is the Sweet Fly Paper Life.

Speaker 2: Signed by Langston Hughes that was his holiday president to Lewis Armstrong in nineteen fifty five. Since happy holidays to the Armstrongs, sincerely, Lengthston Hughes.

Speaker 3: Do you ever think that there were moments. He was really dramatically underappreciated during.

Speaker 2: His Yeah, oh my goodness. At the time of his passing, he was a household name. Everybody knew him, but I don’t think they knew the depth because by the sixties we’re looking right at Heller Dolly right now. I mean, Hello Dolly knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. And so everybody knew the guy who smiled and played the trumpet and sang Hello Dolly went on the head Salvin Show.

Speaker 3: They didn’t know that he changed.

Speaker 2: The rules of jazz and American popular music. And he changed I mean, you can name a million great instrumentalists and a million great singers. He’s the only guy you could find who completely changed the way people played music on their instruments, and he completely changed the way people sing. And so for one guy to do that, it’s unfathomable. But then you throw these first black pop star. He’s knocking down all these barriers for his race. First African American to get featured billing in the Hollywood film, first African Americans to host the nationally sponsored radio show, first African American jazz musicians to publish an autobiography, first African American entertainer to have it in his contract that he wouldn’t play a hotel unless he could stay there. He tells off Eisenhower and the government over the situation in Little Rock in nineteen fifty seven. So all that all those sides of him were really not well known when he passed away.

Speaker 3: Hello Daalis, The pop hits shore.

Speaker 2: And the funny part is like the scholarship around Armstrong, and the view of Armstrong doesn’t really change until his archives become available. Once Gary Giddens and Ken Burns, Bob o’meile, Stanley Crouch win in Marsalis.

Speaker 3: Once his whole.

Speaker 2: Generation in the late eighties and nineties can hear Lewis’s tapes and read his writings and let him kind of speak for himself. All of a sudden they realized, wait a minute, this guy went through hell. I was the civil rights pioneer. This guy basically changed and predicted the next one hundred years of American popular music. And he was down home and humble, and he was a global ambassador and everything in between in a movie star. And so it’s been over fifty years since he passed away, and I feel like we’re coming to grips with him. We’re standing in the Lewis Armstrong Center, so we’ve come pretty far. But my personal feeling is we’re still at the beginning. I think fifty years from now we should make a date to do this again, because I feel like in fifty years, maybe even less, maybe twenty years. But when they say who are the greats, they’re gonna say Shakespeare, they’re gonna say Mozart, they’re gonna say Louis Armstrong. No one’s gonna bat and I in nineteen seventy one, a lot of people would have batted. I would have said, no way, the Hello Dolly guy is on that level. But he is on that level, if not more, And I think that’s our job is to get him to.

Speaker 3: His rightful place.

Speaker 8: Was he criticized though, for not being outspoken at the time, Oh yeah, no, that.

Speaker 3: Was the thing.

Speaker 2: I mean, he grew up in the Deep South, went through hell, and then you know, from a recording perspective, he records what did I Do to be So Black and Blue, which is known as the first protest.

Speaker 3: Song in nineteen twenty nine.

Speaker 2: I mentioned all the barriers he broke down, but by the fifties, when the civil rights ever is really gathering steam. You know, he doesn’t want to come right out and protest or march or anything. You know, he just to him he said, my music will do the talking. And so a lot of people thought he was soft on race. They thought he was just smiling to make white people happy and he didn’t really know what the cause was about. But meanwhile, you know, we have the tape, we have the manuscripts. He was following everything.

Speaker 3: He’s reading the Chicago Defender, he’s reading the Pittsburgh Courier.

Speaker 2: And if he felt that, you know, if he felt a draft, oh my god, he had, he had the New Orleans toughness. It would come out in a minute that he would just you know, he could curse up a blue streak, let you know how he felt.

Speaker 3: But publicly, he didn’t really believe in that until Little Rock.

Speaker 2: You know, he was watching these crowds in September nineteen fifty seven spit and curse at these nine in African American students who were.

Speaker 3: Supposed to integrate the Little Rock Central High School.

Speaker 2: And when the reporters asked him, he said, the way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. And today, I mean, it’s one of the cornerstones of what we teach. It’s the defining civil rights moment of his career. But at the time he was criticized, he was criticized White column and of course we’re calling for boycotts and all that, but he was criticized by.

Speaker 3: Sammy Davis Junior, by Adam Clayton Powell. They had to them. It was kind of like, ah, you know, too little, too late.

Speaker 2: You’re still playing in the South, You’re still playing for in segregated audiences. And that hurt him deeply until the rest of his life. And so I think we’ve now properly refocused and reframed him and showed what he went through and what he accomplished and how he used his power and his voice.

Speaker 3: But in his lifetime he was not appreciated for them.

Speaker 2: What was his take on Vietnam He kind of stayed out of that one, but he did, I think, I mean, at a deep level.

Speaker 3: He was not pro war, for sure, but it was an interesting thing.

Speaker 2: When Vietnam is really raging, he started doing You’ll Never Walk Alone, which he had always played on trumpet, but he starts singing it, and he would dedicate it every night to all the mothers of all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, and so yeah, and you hear some of his later performances and they’re tear jerkers, and so yeah, that was him in his own way of Again, he said he was in he was here in the cause of happiness, and so even in a moment like that, he just wanted to provide some warmth, some comfort.

Speaker 3: You know, to the people who needed it. Wow, it’s pretty special.

Speaker 2: So the third case will go real quick. This is Armstrong on film. People don’t know that he was in over thirty five films. And so we have some poster of Paris Blues. We have Lewis and Billie Holiday and New Orleans Lewis and Kapin in the Sky with Ossi Davis in Sicily Tyson and a man called Adam. And we also have his Grammy Award which he got for recording Hello Dolly.

Speaker 3: And coincidentally, we have a beautiful Gordon Parks photo. I’m sorry.

Speaker 2: We have a beautiful Chuck Stewart photo of Lewis and Barbara streisand holding their mutual Grammys, and a few years later, they would star in the film Hello Dolly Together, where Lewis appears in it for ninety seconds and completely steals the show.

Speaker 3: Of course.

Speaker 2: And so Jason’s fourth and final case was Armstrong on the Ambassador. I mean, by the fifties they were calling him Ambassador Satch and the government was watching. We have his FBI file which is heavily redacted, but it includes some letters from angry fans who did not like the way he criticized the government, but also some of Armstrong’s collages him with the Pope in Italy, one called an Ambassador called satramone the Dave Brubeck album The Real Ambassadors, which Dave and his wife Iola wrote all new music for Lewis in nineteen sixty one.

Speaker 3: And then his passports. His first passport from nineteen.

Speaker 2: Thirty two, where he kind of looks a little, you know, maybe in awe of you know, he’s going overseas for the first time. But his last passport from nineteen sixty seven, I mean it’s basically a publicity photo.

Speaker 3: You know, he’s been around the world and he’s secure and who he is.

Speaker 2: And very confident and ready to go back out and spread some more goodwill. So those four cases were calling permanent cases. But then Jason also was tasked. Oh yes, I had a question about the ambassador at peace. So yeah, there was a period where.

Speaker 8: Lewis and others would be dispatched abroad to sort of spread cultural exchange and all that stuff. Yeah, I mean it was a bit of US spreading propaganda, wasn’t.

Speaker 2: It, because a lot of these musicians be Lewis’s band, Dizzy Gillespie also did it.

Speaker 3: Dave Brubek’s band was integrated.

Speaker 2: You know, they they had a hard time in the United States, you know, going down South, especially integrated bands, and you know the black musicians who couldn’t eat and before the Civil Rights Act and everything. But then we’re sending them out there as America’s you know, this is our finest culture.

Speaker 3: And this is the best.

Speaker 2: So there’s definitely, you know, two things happening at the same time that aren’t quite in concert. But Lewis actually inspired that whole thing. He did a tour of Europe in nineteen fifty five that got headline news.

Speaker 3: Edward R.

Speaker 2: Murrow followed him around with a camera for CBS News, and then The New York Times followed him around, and they did a Sunday Times cover story in which they said America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key, and its most effective ambassador is Lewis Snatchmo Armstrong and Adam Clayton Powell read that article and he went in and said, no, let’s let’s make this a program. And so nineteen fifty six they started the Jazz Ambassadors and Dizzey Gillespie was actually chosen first.

Speaker 3: Lewis only did one State Department tour.

Speaker 2: A lot of people think he was an appointed ambassador or that he was always on the government watch, but he only did one tour of Africa in nineteen sixty. But without him, I don’t think the government would have even known to send out jazz musicians. And I love that photo of him with the Pope there. Yeah, that’s a later photo. That’s from nineteen sixty eight. And like any musician, you know.

Speaker 3: Lewis has given the Pope his latest record. But he also looks very reverent.

Speaker 7: You know.

Speaker 2: He liked to tell a story about the first time he met the pope and the Pope said, do you have any children?

Speaker 3: And he goes, no, but we’re still wailing but that might have been apocryphal.

Speaker 2: I’m not sure, and so those four k so that’s the permanent exhibit, but then the temporary exhibit. This was very exciting for us because when Lewis passed away, nobody knew that he was a visual artist, that he was making collages on his reel to real tank boxes. And then after the Lewis Armstrong Archives opened, all of a sudden it became a thing. You know, there’s a coffee table book, was a few exhibitions, but the tapes were very brittle. They really couldn’t be exhibited for long periods of time. But finally, shortly before we open, we were seeing the two hundred thousand dollars Save America’s Treasures grant and we were stored about eighty boxes that were really bad shape, just in time for the opening of the Lewis Armstrong Center, and so you could see his art and it’s fascinating because he is the subject matter of ninety five percent. If it’s not him, but it’s Lucille or somebody he was close to. But we have a collage of Lucille.

Speaker 3: From her dancing days in nineteen thirty six.

Speaker 2: You know, he would cut out clippings about his band, photos of him playing the trumpet.

Speaker 3: This reel over here.

Speaker 2: This was a Christmas car. This is Lucille and Satchmo. It’s a cornet and he cut out every line and Scotch taped it. Louis with his mother and sister. The black and white version of the color photo. Lewis eating, Lewis singing, you know. And this was how he would occupy his mind after the concert. He was just relentlessly create And we have these beautiful photos.

Speaker 3: Of him in his den, you know, surrounded by scissors.

Speaker 2: Writing autographs, scotch tape, and then this is a crazy thing. In twenty sixteen, the Associated Press did an article about us, and it was the first time a lot of people had found out about us. And we got a call from a guy in Canada who said, I was friends from a piano player. He was the lounge pianist at the Sands in Las Vegas, and.

Speaker 3: He shared a bill.

Speaker 2: Armstrong was on the main stage and he would come and hang out with my friend, and he goes when he left the Sand, and he gave him his tape record because my friend died, I guess, but do you want the tape?

Speaker 3: Recorder.

Speaker 2: We said fine, so you know, we paid for it and now it’s in the museum exibitcase. Lomis Armstrong was the original tape recorder from nineteen fifty seven. He signed it to this guy, Jimmy Lang, and the original photo, the original autograph, it’s all there.

Speaker 3: Wonderful, Oh my god.

Speaker 2: But yeah, his mind was always work, could always work. And yeah, he and he talked about that, you know, because his day to day routine. He would wake up, you know, musician hours. He would wake up three or four o’clock and the first thing he would do is get a cup of coffee and reach for the trumpet and he would warm up. He’d play along with the radio. He would just make noises, long tones whatever. He would call room service. If he’s on the road, get some spaghetti or something up there. He’d show up at the venue at seven o’clock. He’s still warming up, still warming up. Now he plays eight to eleven autographs. Now there’s no VIP package or whatever. He had an open door policy. Just come backstage after the show. So the band would go back to the hotel and go to sleep, and he’d be there signing the autographs. Now, it’s midnight, he gets back to the hotel. If there’s a hang, if there’s a party, he’s going to be there. But if there’s not, if everybody’s sleep under, if they’re in the middle of nowhere, he is now revved up. And so that’s when a lot of musicians fell into bad habits, but for him, it would be all right, I’m going to answer my fan mail. I’m going to catalog my tapes. Maybe I’ll make a scrapbook. I’ll write down some stories. And he’s doing that night after night. And if he doesn’t do that, we don’t have an archive. So the fact that he is, you know, constantly creating, constantly charting his own life, saving these clippings, saving these photographs, you know, all with this kind of self awareness that this might be important someday. And I don’t know if he could have dreamed of where we’re standing right now, but it’s it’s definitely what he deserves.

Speaker 3: Did he fall into any bad habits, Well, it depends on your definition of bad nothing in terms of like some of the jazz players of that right, Yeah, No, I mean Armstrong, I mean the newspaper said it.

Speaker 2: He kind of helped put marijuana on the map, but he actually got arrested for it in nineteen thirty one, and so he had to.

Speaker 3: Be very discreet.

Speaker 2: He never really talked about it publicly, but we have some of his private writings and stuff, and he was far ahead of his time and a lot of the arguments he made to friends about why it should be legal were the same arguments that are getting it legalized today. So he was again the trailblazer, he could say, blazing in more ways than one.

Speaker 3: I wonder what he.

Speaker 8: Would think about the notion that gambling has become legal and marijuana.

Speaker 2: I know, yeah, because I means his whole upbringing in New Orleans gambling. The cops would come and break up the games and all that stuff. So I don’t think he could have ever imagined where things were heading.

Speaker 3: And the last thing to show you here this is kind of beautiful.

Speaker 2: As I mentioned, we have the world’s largest archives for any single jazz musician, and in twenty sixteen we got a two point seven million dollar gramp from Robert of Smith’s fun To Foundation to digitize the entire archives, and so these it’s like a big record. As you can see, there’s eight different screens and these are all curated stories. So this is I just chose Lewis Armstrong and the kids of Corona, and you can spend hours here, you know, looking at photos and each one has a long caption of Lewis and all the kids from the neighborhood. This one has audio of Lucille talking, which yeah, probably needs the headphones for that.

Speaker 3: So this is just one example.

Speaker 2: But other stories, you know, Armstrong and Africa, Passport to the World, Billie Holliday, Armstrong and Ghana, the Neighbors, Selma Harada, Lose Weight, the Satchment Boy, Lewis and Duke Ellington, Lucille’s life story and so really you can come here in between all the stories on the table, plus all the videos and the monarm you could spend over an hour in this room and then take the tour of the house and really get the full immersive experience.

Speaker 5: Are there any folks that are in the neighborhood that were in the neighborhood then.

Speaker 3: Not anymore, but they come back and that’s always beautiful.

Speaker 5: You know.

Speaker 2: We actually had the son of Lucille’s hairdresser was here on opening day and then he told me that he was in touch with the brothers who are in the photos, all those front steps photos. There’s still ones in Georgia, I think, and one is in ones in I want to say Texas. But we sell coffee mugs with that photo on it, and the brothers are like, hey, can you send us some of those coffee mugs? And so of course, and we’ve had people who just show up for tours. It’s somewhere. Yeah, was a four to twenty, speaking of which, Yeah, we’ve got a photo here he talks about it. Yeah, this is the Cannabis Cup, which High Times magazine named him the Man of the Century and they gave it posthumously in nineteen ninety nine him getting arrested.

Speaker 3: So that whole story is there.

Speaker 2: But yeah, so the kids who were all five and ten and they’re now their fifties and so they keep coming back and it’s it’s it’s really beautiful, Rickie.

Speaker 3: Let’s end with some quotes. Oh yeah, there’s so many of them.

Speaker 2: So well, this whole thing here, you know, this is Elephantzgerald. I’m recording with Louis Armstrong. She said, I was just thrill. I messed up some records because when we record, I was so busy listening to him and looking at him because of the way he would sing on stage. He would do the same thing while he was recording. I’d forget to come in. I’d be watching him. He was just Louis, just for real. I think that’s been one of the great things of all the people I’ve worked with. They’re all real people, no put on. James Baldwin writes about Beale Street upon hearing Armstrong and do the National Anthem in nineteen fifty eight, Baldwin responds, that’s the first time I’ve liked that song. Miles David said, you can’t play anything on the horn that Lewis hasn’t played, and yeah, we’ve got a whole Billie Holliday, she said.

Speaker 3: I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I’m playing a horn.

Speaker 2: I try to improvise, like Lester Young, like Louis Armstrong was somebody else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change the tunes my own way of doing it.

Speaker 3: That’s all I know. Duke Ellington, he was the epitome of jazz and always will be.

Speaker 2: Tony Bennett, the bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world.

Speaker 3: We contributed Louis Armstrong. I mean that it doesn’t say it well.

Speaker 8: The essence of this podcast always comes back to the love of music, the stories behind the music, the people who shape the music.

Speaker 3: And this couldn’t have.

Speaker 5: Been any better of a walk through the house, the museum and the life of Lewis Armstrong.

Speaker 3: Thank you, buzz.

Speaker 2: It’s a special place. I mean, I know I’m immersed in it, but like I said, it’s what Lewis deserves. And like Jason Moran called the exhibits, you know, we’re here to stay, so we hope that people continue to visit, school groups, kids, musicians, international visitors.

Speaker 3: Were right near the airport.

Speaker 2: Sometimes we’re the first destination when people land at La Guardia.

Speaker 3: Sometimes we’re the last, right before they boarded the plane. But we’re not going anywhere.

Speaker 2: So as long as people have any interest Louis Armstrong or music or twentieth century culture, race, film media, we’re here to tell that story.

Speaker 3: Thank you, Ricky, Thanks both.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Taking a Walk podcast. Share this and other episodes with your friends and follow us so you never miss an episode. Taking a Walk is available on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.

About The Author

Buzz Knight

Buzz Knight is an established media executive with a long history of content creation and multi-platform distribution.

After a successful career as a Radio Executive, he formed Buzz Knight Media which focuses on strategic guidance and the development of new original content.