The House of Armstrong

I've lived in New York City for 20 years, but until last weekend, I'd never visited the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in the borough of Queens. My lapse was inexcusable. The place, which has been opened to the public since 2003, isn't a difficult destination: a nice ride out on the No.7 subway line (to the 103rd Street–Corona station), followed by a five-minute walk. The place is a sheer delight. I plan to go again. You should, too.

Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, moved into the two-story dwelling, at 34-56 107th Street, in 1943, soon after they were married, and they stayed there till he died in 1971. It's a modest structure; Armstrong, who was worth millions, could have bought any mansion in Harlem, but Lucille and her mother, who stayed with the couple for a while, came from Corona; it felt like home to her, and it soon did to Louis too. (Many photos show him playing with kids on the block.) They splurged instead on décor, all of it still intact—gold-plated faucets and shower rods, a High Modern kitchen, a den filled with state-of-the-art sound gear, including three tape recorders, which Louis kept spinning for hours on end, laying down trumpet solos, scat songs, and spoken reminiscences—brief clips of which a docent plays during the 45-minute tour, many others of which are filed at the Armstrong Archive on the campus of Queens College. (When the Armstrong foundation donated the house to New York City in 1987, Queens College was chosen to manage the facility and to catalog all of his papers, photos, instruments, collages, mementoes, and scads of tape reels.)

The garage has been transformed to administrative offices and a gift shop, which is well stocked with books, monographs, CDs—some of them rare—and souvenirs.

When I got back home in Brooklyn, I put on some Armstrong discs that I hadn't played in a while—not the later albums (his collaborations with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald are stand-outs, of course), but his primal classics: the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, recorded on the Okeh label, from 1925–28. The boxed set of these tracks (more about which in a moment) amounts to the Rosetta Stone of jazz, the beginnings of jazz solos as a form of virtuosity, of the blues as a harmonic system, of jazz as not merely hothouse raucousness but art.

The original Hot Five band consisted of Armstrong on trumpet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis' first wife) on piano. The Seven expanded the group, with some substitutions (including Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano). Their music hasn't lost a bit of its vitality: the group's polyphonic improvisation, joyful swing, and deep, deep blues continue to rivet and astound.

John R.T. Davies, a British jazzman and record collector, re-mastered the original 78rpm discs of these sessions, painstakingly removing the pops, ticks, and scratches, restoring the music's warmth and dynamics. In 1999, the London label, JSP Records, released a 4-CD boxed set, mastered from Davies' clean copies—and they sound terrific: better than you'd ever dream possible from sessions that are now almost 90 years old. Around the same time, Columbia Legacy put out its own set, and though not bad, it suffers from a top-end boost; compared with the JSP, it sounds both harsher and muddier.

Both are still available; the JSP is still in print. Though initially more expensive, the Columbia is not a bit cheaper, but this is great, seminal music, worthy of the extra 10 bucks. Go for the JSP.

fetuso's picture

I've always enjoyed your writing, especially on Slate. A few months ago you wrote about the Jackie Byard Project. I ended up buying the disc, but unfortunately it's almost a month since I placed the order from GM Recordings and the girl who answers the phones there still hasn't bothered to send it to me. Frustrating. I'm going to check out this Armstrong compilation, and hopefully I'll have better luck.

volvic's picture

my wife and I have spoken many times of visiting and still haven't - a short subway ride from Manhattan. Shame on us. Maybe this article will spur us into action.