PARADISE ON EARTH: VISITING THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM

This past Monday I spent yet another pleasant afternoon at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  The house is closed on Mondays, but it was a special occasion.  I was there to train as a volunteer docent, someone who would give guided tours of the house.  Being a volunteer in service to Louis Armstrong is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, because I could never repay my debt to the man who has given me so much, not only his music but his attitude towards life*.

The LAHM needs volunteers, but they are precise in their requirements: there’s an application form to fill out, an interview (pleasant but serious), references to provide, and several training sessions.  The prospective volunteer is asked to make a six-month commitment and offer her / his services to the LAHM for one day a week, 10-5. You can fill out the application online: thatsforme.   Serious stuff, but they don’t let just anyone take care of holy places.

Yet it is absolutely uplifting to be allowed into Louis and Lucille’s house, to climb the stairs that they climbed, to see the mirrored bathroom and the dining room — with an Asian painting on the wall whose pictographs, translated, are PARADISE ON EARTH.

The extraordinarily shiny mid-century turquoise kitchen; the shiny mylar wallpaper (Lucille dug wallpaper and the insides of the closets are wallpapered in different patterns); the exhibit room with Louis’ gold-plated trumpet; the den where Louis spent much of his time listening to music, making his tape-recordings, talking on the telephone, practicing his trumpet, singing his songs.  A portrait of Louis by Calvin Bailey; another by some Italian fellow.

One of the most touching aspects of a visit to the LAHM is the soundscape.  (How could you have a tour of Louis’ world in silence?  Impossible.)  Moving from room to room, one hears excerpts from Louis’ homemade tape-recordings.  Early on, Louis was thrilled by getting it all down “for posterity.”  He knew his worth, and without immodesty, he knew that we would be listening to his life after he and Lucille were gone.

I heard, once again, the sweet story of how, when Louis and Lucille were newly married in 1942, she wearied quickly of “the road,” of living out of suitcases, and decided that the new couple should have a home.  She knew of a house in Corona, Queens, for sale — even then a comfortable blue-collar neighborhood, but one in which African-Americans were welcome  — and purchased it without Louis having seen it.  He was on the road perhaps 300 nights a year.

When he was going to be in New York, Lucille told him about the house and gave him the address.  Very early one morning in 1943, Louis caught a cab and had the driver take him to an 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens.

Because he hadn’t seen any photographs of the house and it seemed extremely grand to him, he asked the driver to wait there, in case there was some mistake.  He climbed the steps that I climbed on Monday, rang the doorbell, and there stood Lucille, in her dressing gown, as pretty as a woman could be, saying the words every man or woman longs to hear, “Welcome home, honey.”

Louis couldn’t believe this was his home at first, but he was convinced.  And he lived in this house with his wife until his death in 1971.

I write all this with a lump in my throat — for gladness, because Louis is my hero.  I told Michael Cogswell this (because I had the same feelings while in the House), “Louis is my saint and we try to be his apostles.”

You may not want to be a docent at the House — that’s fine.   Some of my readers will find the commute to Corona a bit taxing.  But if the idea appeals to you, click wonderfulworld.

But I encourage you to visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum and be in the spiritual presence of the man who changed and created so much of the music we love.  You might want to absorb the aura of his great humanity, his generosity, his love for the music and his fellow men and women (including miniature Schnauzers).  Or you might want to come and look at the wallpapers!  (Lucille loved wallpaper and the house is a marvelous specimen of the best mid-century modern American interior decor, and that’s no stage joke.)  Here’s the information you’ll need about the forty-minute tours:  louis.

The LAHM also needs your financial support . . . but you don’t need me to tell you this.  Become a member or make a contribution:  swisskriss.  These days, everyone’s bucket has a hole in it, but holes can be patched.

Just to get you in the mood, here is Louis performing that pretty song, HOME.

Louis and Lucille Armstrong loved their neighbors — the neighborhood kids ate ice-cream in the living room and watched Westerns on television.  If they were alive today, they would be inviting friends to the house for good times.

The House itself welcomes you.  Within its tidy rooms Louis and Lucille are alive.

Make a date with yourself and your Beloved to pay them a call in the most down-to-earth shrine you will ever visit.

*And here’s what I mean by Louis’ attitude toward life — I wrote about it some time ago: what-would-louis-do.

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16 responses to “PARADISE ON EARTH: VISITING THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM

  1. Michael, The more than “touching” post you wrote about “the man” put a lump in my throat too.. Your vivid description of the Armstrong home was so real to me I felt like I was there,,,Next best thing to actually getting a taste of where and how they lived. Thank you for the delightful trip!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience in the home of Louis and Lucille Armstrong! Sounds amazing, and I look forward to taking this bucket list trip to the home. I also love your choice of song at the end of this post.

  3. Thank you, dear Ms. Moore — but don’t wait until the end of things to come visit! The exhibit room changes its rarities . . . and it’s the kind of place that reveals more of itself on return visits.

  4. Beautiful one Michael

  5. Thank you, Matt — it means a lot when the musicians notice what I’m up to — but it’s all about Louis, who deserves celebration at every moment!

  6. Dear Michael,
    You wrote this post with such warmth, gratitude and love. Thank you. It allowed me to picture Louis Armstrong at home on a Tuesday evening, eating a cozy supper of leftovers with his wife, or out in the driveway chatting with the neighbors about weather or taxes. I can imagine hot summer nights when those same neighbors heard the sound of his horn drift out through an open window into the sultry air. Did they appreciate that moment as a gift, or did they just turn up the volume on the TV?

    When I was a little girl living in a small community, my parents made sure our family spent Sunday mornings in the old church my grandfather had helped to build decades before. While the preacher droned on and on and sunlight beamed through the stained glass windows, I would look around and imagine that the vibrations from all the sounds ever heard there—other sermons, hymns sung by other choirs and congregations, organ music, wedding processions, whispered vows, tearful eulogies, crying babies, and even my grandfather’s hammer—had seeped into those walls to become a part of them forever.

    How lovely to think of you, of all people, wandering through the rooms of this sanctuary of jazz. In my imagination, I see you pause with your eyes closed, to sense the vibrations those walls might also contain. There could be no more perfect person to volunteer for this job, with all your knowledge and appreciation, but I also know you will receive as much as you give. Since you are there and I am not, take a moment to put your ear to the wall for me, will you please? I still believe in the mysterious.

  7. So do I. Those walls reverberate, I think. And what we know of time and space suggests that the sound waves that Louis made are still somewhere in the cosmos. Even better, those tapes are the best embodiment of what Louis and Lucille and friends sounded like on some Tuesday afternoon. What beautiful prose of your own, Candace! The vibrations are all around you . . .

  8. Jack Rothstein

    Beautiful post. There is an old saying,”In heaven the angels all listen to Mozart, but God only listens to Bach” to which I would add and Louis Armstrong.

  9. What a great gig Michael, and you also gave us a peek at the museum. Thanks for the tour .

  10. They’re lucky to have you join the staff, Michael.

  11. This is one of your best writeups, Brother Michael. You make the reader feel as if he or she is actually THERE, experiencing the warmth of the Armstrongs.

  12. I had just finished watching the episode of Ken Burns’ jazz documentary where he discusses Louis and Lucille and the welcoming of Louis to this home when I came across this posting.

    Which goes to show that Louis could not only suspend time in his playing but that time and space dissolve in the mere contemplation of his life and gifts.

    Yeah man.

  13. Pingback: Philosophy for Friday | Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic

  14. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Again, it is written with such warmth and caring. Louis would approve I’m sure!! I have been to the house twice now and hope to visit it many more times. Congratulations on your new job! I can’t think of a more gratifying job than introducing people to the life and music of Louis Armstrong. I have met some of the staff and you will definitely be in good company. If I lived in New York I would have applied for the job long ago.
    Thank you again and keep up the awesome work!
    Judy Sadowsky

  15. I am late, but want to add one small detail. Some who read this might be in a similar circumstance. I found that it is a very reasonable walk to Louis’s home from LaGuardia Airport. In my case I arrived on a flight in the late morning and did not need to be in a meeting until the evening, so I walked both ways. The walk from the airport provided an opportunity to anticipate my visit, while my return provided time for reflection. I encourage you to consider this simple option. Mapquest makes it easy. I only had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Armstrong one time, between two shows at Purdue University when I was a student and hosted a weekly jazz radio program. He emerged wrapped in a robe and looking quite tired. The stage crew provided a stool for him, and arranged a small spotlight on a tripod that shined directly in his face. Instinctively, I immediately moved in front of the light to shield his eyes. He noticed and immediately relaxed. I still have the reel tape recording when he kindly read the short promo I wrote for my program: “Listen to ‘Profiles in Jazz.’ It puts the swing in Purdue University.” I did have a chance to see him perform outdoors in Minneapolis once before at what subsequently became the first stadium used by the Minnesota Twins.

  16. WOW is what we say here!

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