Online Visitors, Too, Can Say ‘Hello, Louis’

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, is a treasure trove of memorabilia. Administered by Queens College, it holds the world’s most extensive archives devoted to one jazz musician. And now, most of the museum’s six collections can be searched online.

Young neighbors get a music lesson from the master on the steps of the Queens house where he lived out his life.

“Louis Armstrong is a figure with a worldwide appeal,” says Ricky Riccardi, an archivist at the museum. “The Armstrong archive has been opened since 1994, but a lot of people don’t exactly know what’s here and it’s our way of spelling it out. We’ve had researchers, who saw an item on the catalog, come to Queens College to see it in person.”

The museum’s varied collections consist of 5,000 sound recordings, 15,000 photographs, 30 films, 100 scrapbooks, 20 linear feet of letters and papers, and six trumpets.

“Anyone who spends a few hours at the archives will have a better appreciation for Armstrong the man,” says Riccardi, whose book What a Wonderful World: the Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years was published in June. “He was a complex, intelligent human being, whose offstage humanity sometimes gets obscured by his musical accomplishments.”

Armstrong, who grew up in poverty in New Orleans, became  wealthy enough to live anywhere, but he and his wife Lucille chose the modest Corona area of Queens in 1943.  They spent the rest of their lives in their two-story brick home on 107th  Street. The house, which is both a National and New York City landmark, looks much as it did when Lucille died in 1983. For decades, Satchmo, as Armstrong was known, recorded his everyday conversations in the home and on the road touring, while meticulously organizing his journals, letters, musical commentary and other materials until his death in 1971 at 71.

“Louis Armstrong was incredibly tuned in to what technology was popular at the time,” says Deslyn Dyer, Programs Officer at the museum. “He used a 1950s tape recorder, a reel-to-reel tape recorder — it was like having an iPod in the ’50s,” says Dyer. “He used to travel with it and he recorded life going by for two decades. A lot of the recordings are very personal so you feel like a fly on the wall when listening to some of them at the museum.”

Satchmo’s personal recordings are part of the focal Louis Armstrong Collection, which also includes scrapbooks, band manuscripts and other materials.

A grant from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation also led to the acquisition of the world’s largest private collection of Armstrong material from Jack Bradley, Armstrong’s friend and a noted jazz photographer. The Bradley collection has hundreds of candid, previously unpublished photographs taken or collected by Bradley over five decades. And, the Louis Armstrong House Collection holds all the furniture, appliances, paintings, decorations and art in the Corona house.

The project to create an online catalog of the Museum Collection was funded, in part, by a $105,384, two-year grant from the Museums for America program of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The museum expects to have cataloging for all of its collections available online by the end of 2011.

“Louis Armstrong had a great sense of his importance and how many hearts he touched during his 50-year career,” says Dyer. “This collection is a real gift to all of us to have today and for generations to come.”