Corona, N.Y. -- On Roosevelt Avenue near 103rd Street, the No. 7 elevated train clunks over flea-bitten secondhand-furniture stores, fruit and vegetable stands, electronic/camera shops, a unisex beauty salon, the old Plaza movie theatre (boarded up), "Gigante" Novelties and a 99-cent store. Racks of woolen shirts, T-shirts and two-generations-old New York Yankee jackets line the sidewalk, along with rusty refrigerators and a discarded barber chair. Old storefronts and two-story brick buildings have stood here until nobody remembers. The clunking may fade, but nothing else changes.
Farther down, at the corner of 107th Street and 37th Avenue, there's a deli/grocery featuring a four-seat lunch counter and a small inventory of canned goods, paper towels and junk food. Turning left onto 107th Street, you find a residential block of run-down homes, most needing paint. The front door of a wooden house with two windows hangs three-quarters open, with no one in sight.
Sixty years ago, it wasn't so different here. Roosevelt Avenue was spotted with mom-and-pop stores, and crimes were fewer. At 107th Street off 37th Avenue, it was quiet and a little cleaner. But it was still a nondescript, working-class, family neighborhood.
But two weeks ago, nearly 1,500 people -- from New York, New Orleans, Boston, Germany, Poland, Japan and Sweden -- filled this block. They flocked here because on Oct. 15, the house where Louis Armstrong lived for almost 30 years, at 3456 107th St., opened to the world as an historic museum.
Why Armstrong would have chosen to live here shows the substance of the man. By 1943, when he and his wife, Lucille, moved into this ordinary frame house, Armstrong could have lived almost anywhere. Starting in 1932 he had begun traveling to Europe and Africa. With the crowds he attracted, you'd think the Pope was speaking. He could have purchased a palace
But underneath, he seems to have desired the familiar -- the rooms, houses, neighborhoods and people of his youth. By moving here, he seemed to be returning to a New Orleans childhood that was humble, if not humbling.
Where Louis Armstrong came from, people attacked with bricks and killed with knives. His teenage mother was illiterate; she washed laundry and turned tricks to survive. Young Louis lived a stone's throw from the parish prison. The tantalizing red light district lay blocks away.
At age 11, Armstrong was thrown for 18 months into a lockup -- the Colored Waifs' Home. With barely four or five years of schooling, he had a bleak future.
"It is a miracle that he grew up to be as loving and, in his own way, sensitive, and all that, out of such a tough environment," says Joe Muranyi, Armstrong's clarinetist between 1966 and 1971. "Criminals, murderers -- he wasn't that. He could have been so bitter, racism tearing him up. But he was such a unique person that I think he overcame it."
Near the end of his life, Armstrong himself wrote in a memoir, "Oh my young days I think were very nice. I never did wish for the impossible things. Until this day in my old age I am still the same. Just plain wishing is nowheres."
What Armstrong gave to the world was what he took out of New Orleans: his authenticity. The evidence comes from many sources.
"One of the things I most admired about Louis Armstrong was his ability to create music on such a profound level, but still be able to reach the common people," says trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who performed for the Louis Armstrong House opening. "I think sometimes in art, perhaps the higher up you go, that sort of element gets lost. And one thing I really respect about him, regardless of how lofty the endeavor, he kept that communal spirit in his playing. I think he understood the importance of reaching people, and that this music is a celebratory thing."
During opening ceremonies, writer and Jazz at Lincoln Center co-founder Stanley Crouch addressed the crowd. "Louis Armstrong taught people that you could bring passion, logic and virtuoso technique together, and you could speak across all boundaries of color, class, religion, and geography," he said. "He started in New Orleans, and wherever he went, he took New Orleans with him. But he also taught that ... the genius of feeling at the center of the human tale is the one that always means the most to us."
The stories are legion. "After the show, he would invite people to his dressing room, set a table outside the door," says Jack Bradley, Armstrong's friend, personal photographer and traveling companion. "There would be long lines for autographs. He would give everyone an 8-by-10 photo and a sample pack of Swiss Kriss. Meanwhile, the band was long gone and probably in their hotel rooms."
Not only would Armstrong sign autographs -- he would write long letters to fans he had met only once. Perusing the Armstrong House exhibit room, one can see a handwritten postcard addressed to "Jack the Bellboy, Radio Station, Detroit, Mich.," expressing regrets that the bellboy had been sick. Also on display is a picture of Armstrong in his silver and mirrored bathroom joking that he would be foolish to take a bath amid his glamorous plumbing because "I would smoke up the glass."
In his dressing room, according to the late Danny Barker, you could find everyone from senators to street sweepers -- and he would give each one equal attention. And Joe Muranyi has said that "Louis befriended crippled people, people with no teeth, chambermaids, little poor kids, and shoe shine boys."
Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern knew Armstrong for 22 years. He wrote in the 1999 Annual Review of Jazz Studies, "Many times I'd see him discretely pass some folded bills (and they were not small denominations) to someone with a handshake. Louis always carried a large roll of bills, and it was always replenished." Morgenstern also has said that Armstrong "had an amazing gift for making you feel at such ease that it soon seemed as if he were an old friend."
It had been the same way in New Orleans. When Armstrong was just 7 years old, he began working to help support his mother and sister. At around 14, when he started gigging on cornet and revealing his talent, older musicians would seek him out to fill in, saying, "Run get little Louis." Later, while still a teenager, Armstrong adopted Clarence, the child of a careless cousin, and took care of him for the rest of his life, even after Clarence became brain-damaged. He also cared for his own sister, "Mama Lucy," sending her money for decades.
"My mother had one thing ... and that was good common sense (and respect for human beings)," Armstrong said in a late-life memoir, recently published in Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, edited by Thomas Brothers. "But we were happy. Yea. That's my diploma. ... To me, no college in this whole world can top it. ... I may not profess to be the smartest Negro in the world. But I was taught to respect a man or woman until they prove in my estimation that they don't deserve it."
The house clinches all of this. "He lived here in Corona like a regular guy," says Michael Cogswell, the director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives and the author of the new book Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo. "The band bus would pull up out front, the kids from the neighborhood would help carry in his suitcase and his trumpet, and then Lucille would fix everybody a bowl of ice cream and they all would watch Westerns on TV.
This was a home, not a palace -- although it seemed so to Armstrong. The first time he laid eyes on this building, he was in a cab returning from a gig. In a memoir, he said, "One look at that big fine house, and right away I said to the driver, 'Aw man quit kidding and take me to the address I'm looking for.'"
Certainly, the house is opulent; decorated almost exclusively by Lucille, it boasts custom wallpaper over almost every square foot. Anywhere you step, you can see yourself in an oversized mirror. The living room sofas are done in white satin with red cushions, and glass chandeliers hang throughout the building. The dining room shows an Asian theme, and the blue-lacquered kitchen, with its built-in food processor and paper towel/aluminum foil dispenser, was state of the art for its time. Upstairs, the master bedroom features what Louis called his "wall-to-wall bed."
In Armstrong's wood-paneled den, you can still feel the master at work, practicing his horn, writing to legions of friends and fans, making scrapbooks, and recording nearly 650 reel-to-reel tapes of personal conversations, favorite records, dinners at home and radio and TV interviews.
But overall, the house is small. Although the Armstrongs often entertained friends, the rooms seem primarily meant for just Louis and Lucille. Amid the opulence, there is the sense of a couple staying within their means and remembering their origins -- Lucille from her days as a Cotton Club dancer, and Louis from his poor New Orleans neighborhood where neighbor depended upon neighbor, people worked for a living, and no one knew how he would ever get ahead.