Louis Armstrong's house in Queens opens as museum

Musicians celebrate in modest neighborhood that jazz star called home

November 02, 2003|By Miriam Hill | Miriam Hill,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - For a few sweet, sultry seconds recently, the notes of Louis Armstrong's gold-plated trumpet once again blew magically over working-class Queens.

It was a sound that serenaded 107th Street for almost 30 years beginning in 1943, when Armstrong's wife, Lucille, bought the modest frame house where the jazz legend often played for neighborhood children, who called him "Pops."

When the city of New York unveiled the house as a museum, the Gully Low Jazz Band, featuring clarinetest Joe Muranyi, who once played with Armstrong, transformed the street into a New Orleans-style party. Men with Satchmo-sized jowls blew into shiny instruments. Singers growled and scatted. Every foot was tapping.

Not far from the band was jazz great Clark Terry, 83, cradling his trumpet as if it were an infant and swarmed by reporters as if he were Louis Armstrong himself. Now in a wheelchair, he recalled a Queens that was once bursting with jazz giants.

"This is my old neighborhood," Terry said. "This is where we'd come to get our batteries recharged. Pops lived here. Dizz was up on 106th, and I lived on 110th."

That's Dizz as in Dizzy Gillespie. Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller lived here as well.

Children used to follow Armstrong down the street as if he were the Pied Piper, Terry added. Hard to say whether that was for the music or for ice cream he bought them.

"He was the most beautiful human being that ever walked the earth," Terry said of his friend.

Armstrong's musical genius, magical grin and mellifluous growl inspired generations to superlatives:

"The beginning and the end of American music" - Bing Crosby

"If God has a voice he sounds like Louis" - jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins

"Fire your psychiatrist and listen to Louis Armstrong" - critic Barry Matthews

Trumpeter Jon Faddis told the crowd of about 300 that when Armstrong visited a warring Belgian Congo in 1953, the factions put down their weapons for a night to listen to his music.

"We could use Louis Armstrong's music now," said Faddis, who made hearts swell and throats clog as he played a few notes of "West End Blues" on one of his hero's eight trumpets to open the museum.

Anyone wondering exactly how Armstrong changed American music could get an answer from asking just about anyone in a crowd that brimmed with jazz players - including the Japanese Satchmo, Yoshio Toyama - and jazz experts.

"He was the man who changed jazz from ensemble music to music featuring soloists," said jazz historian Phil Schapp. "He was also a great singer, though an unusual one. He was the first to introduce scat singing." (Scat singing is using meaningless syllables to imitate the sound of a musical instrument.)

He was also known for his kindness to everyone. Schapp remembered having dinner in the Armstrong home in 1946. Schapp and his friends tried to get Armstrong to admit that he didn't like the overly sweet style of Guy Lombardo.

"But he insisted that he did," Schapp said.

The house is in a modest section of Corona, Queens.

Step inside, however, and you are transported into a world of glamour befitting a famous musician and the wife he met when she was a dancer at the Cotton Club. Mirrors line every inch of the downstairs bathroom, where the faucets are shaped like swans. The entire kitchen, including the refrigerator, is turquoise.

Armstrong's deep but gentle rumble reverberates through the home. He liked to record everything, from his music to conversations with friends. Those recordings play as visitors wander through the house. In the small living room decorated in an Asian theme, for example, visitors can hear Armstrong introduce the song "High Society."

He sang about "High Society," he played for it, made his fortune from it, but it was Queens and its everyday streets that he called home. He died there in 1971. Lucille Armstrong lived there until her death in 1983.

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