Louis Armstrong's dazzling archive has a new home — his
Louis Armstrong was already a worldwide star — a seasoned headliner with a Hollywood profile — when his wife, Lucille, surprised him with the purchase of a modest house in Corona, Queens, in 1943. He got his first glimpse of the place fresh off tour, rolling up in a taxicab. (He invited the cab driver to come in and check it out with him.) "The more Lucille showed me around the house the more thrill'd I got," Armstrong later wrote. "I felt very grand over it all."
For the rest of his life, Armstrong filled the house with his presence, practicing his horn and entertaining friends. He also presided over a world of his own making: homemade tape recordings, scrapbook photo collages, an outpouring of words either clattered on a typewriter or scrawled in a looping longhand. After he died in 1971, Lucille began to envision this mass of material as an archive, making plans for its preservation.
The Louis Armstrong Archive, the world's largest for any single jazz musician, was established at Queens College in 1991. A dozen years later, the brick-faced home, already a registered landmark, opened to the public as the Louis Armstrong House Museum — a lovingly tended time capsule, and a humble but hallowed site of pilgrimage for fans from around the world.
Now it has a gleaming new neighbor just across the street: the Louis Armstrong Center, a $26 million facility that will greatly expand access to the museum and house the 60,000 items in the archive, bringing them back to the block. At the official ribbon-cutting last week, a brass band led a New Orleans second line to the new building. Then came a ceremonial fanfare played by a choir of trumpeters, including Jon Faddis and Bria Skonberg. Inside, guests perused an interactive digital kiosk and several display cases full of artifacts, like Armstrong's trumpet, a few of his mixed-media collages, and two of his passports.
"We've had people from around the world come here," Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi, the museum's Director of Research Collections, tells NPR. "They know about the house. They know about the museum. They've taken the tour. They've been to Corona. They don't quite know the archival side: They've never seen the collages, they've never heard the tapes. And so the house will always be the gem, the jewel. That'll still be number one. But now we have the space that we can properly show the archives."
The Louis Armstrong Center was a brainchild of Michael Cogswell, the founding Executive Director of the House Museum, who died in 2020. Among its steadfast champions was the museum's former Board chair, philanthropist Jerome Chazen, who died last year. That their dream finally came to fruition, after more than two decades of hopeful planning, is a testament to the strength of that vision — and the efforts of those who carried it forward. "We're thankful for the community that raised us up," says Regina Bain, Executive Director of the House Museum. "It's all in the spirit of Louis and Lucille — because they made such an impact on this community, and on this block, that people wanted to fight for this space."
The inaugural exhibition at the Louis Armstrong Center was curated by pianist Jason Moran, who relished the chance to dive into the collection and surface new insights. "It's ultra-important," he says of the archive's new home, "especially for Black people who create sound — our thing is already kind of in the atmosphere, right? So to have something so solid, which I think is Armstrong's vision. He says, 'No, I need solid material. I've got to have a photograph. I've got to have my own recordings that I make. I've got to decorate them myself.' "
Moran titled the exhibition "Here to Stay," borrowing a lyric from one of the George and Ira Gershwin songs that Armstrong redrew with his interpretation. The phrase is plain-spoken but powerful, like Armstrong's music — and on his block in Corona in 2023, it carries a ring of truth.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.