When the sunset in the sky
And flowers never die
Friends don’t pass you by
But that’s my home
When Louis Armstrong sang those lyrics in a recording studio on December 8, 1932, “home” meant one thing to him: New Orleans. He left his hometown in July 1922 and though he spent several years in Chicago and quite some time in New York City and Los Angeles, he had already embarked on the life of a road warrior by 1932. Home was usually whatever hotel he happened to be staying at after his gig.
That all changed when Louis married Cotton Club dancer Lucille Wilson on October 12, 1942. At the time, Louis was living out of the Hotel Olga in Harlem and assumed he would go right on living there with his new bride.
But Lucille had a different plan, especially when she got a taste of the grueling life of one-nighters that were an integral part of Louis’s life. “Let’s get a house,” Lucille told Louis soon after they married. “What do you want a house for?” Louis responded. “We’ll be traveling and in hotel rooms.” Lucille, who spent part of her childhood in Corona, got a tip from friend Adele Heraldo that the Irish Brennan family were selling their two-family home at 34-56 107th Street for $8,000.
“I bought the house myself and didn’t tell him,” Lucille later recalled. Lucille paid the down payment out of her own bank account on March 3, 1943 and immediately moved her mother in—without telling Louis for eight full months! Louis eventually saw it and fell so in love with the home and the neighborhood, he refused to move, living there for the final 28 years of his life.
I’m always welcomed back
No matter where I roam
Just a little shack to me
Is home sweet home
Louis continued “roaming” the world, traveling over 300 days a year at the height of his fame. But he truly relished the moments he spent at home in Queens with Lucille and his beloved neighbors. “And you take this neighborhood we live in,” he said in 1964. “We’re right out here with the rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats. We don’t need to move out in the suburbs to some big mansion with lots of servants and yardmen and things. What for? What the hell I care about living in a ‘fashionable’ neighborhood? Ain’t nobody cutting off the lights and gas here ‘cause we didn’t pay the bills. The Frigidaire is full of food, what more do we need? Pops, my motto is ‘Eat Good, Stay Healthy and Don’t Worry About Being Rich.’”
At home, Lucille gave Louis a den to entertain friends and work on his hobbies. These pastimes included compiling scrapbooks, writing letters to friends, practicing the trumpet, penning autobiographical manuscripts and most of all, recording reel-to-reel tapes. Beginning in December 1950, Armstrong got into the habit of turning his tape recorder on to capture conversations with friends, joke telling sessions, radio programs, small talk at dinner and even arguments with Lucille. After one such argument with his wife, Lucille implored him to erase the tape. “No,” Louis responded, “That’s for posterities.”
Those two words, “For posterities,” describe why Louis dedicated so many years of his life to serving as his own personal archivist while at home in his den. Once, while reading various news clippings and reviews into his microphone, he commented to no one in particular, “I’ve been putting it on my tape recorder from the radio and I have all kinds of statements and different things, which will be good to remember when I get to be a hundred years old.”
Armstrong also captured regular moments at home, such as this recording of Louis making an audio letter for French jazz authority Hugues Panassie while “at home in Queens.” Listen as Louis trips up the date but Lucille, the ever helpful wife, is there to correct him:
Louis treasured those moments spent at home. In 1964, Lucille told Ebony, “…[T]his is the only place that’s really ‘home’ to him. He often tells me, ‘Lucille, let’s don’t get rid of this during my lifetime.’ I won’t either, because it’s one of the very few things he requires to be happy.” After Louis ended up in intensive care in 1969, Lucille remodeled the home, modernizing his den to inspire him to spend more time convalescing with his hobbies instead of going back on the road.
Soon after Louis passed away in 1971, Lucille spoke about their home, telling the media, “It has so many beautiful memories; 28 years of happiness. It was the only home he’d owned. He used to say it was the home he had dreamed about in the Waifs Home in New Orleans.All of Louis’ things are there. I’m going to keep them there. Eventually I’ll probably give it to the city as a memorial to Louis. We had planned to do that. People can start coming in to see the place where Louis lived.
Lucille devoted her widowhood to Louis’s legacy, having their home declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. After her passing in 1983, the City of New York took over the Armstrong House and chose Queens College to administer it. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation donated Louis and Lucille’s personal artifact and the Louis Armstrong Archives was opened to the public in 1994. After a $5-million renovation, the Louis Armstrong House Museum opened to the public in 2003 thanks to efforts of longtime Director Michael Cogswell.
Since then, the Louis Armstrong House Museum has been visited by thousands of people each year from all over the world–until March 2020 when the Museum had to temporarily close because of the outbreak of COVID-19. While working from home over the next several weeks, the small staff of the Armstrong House realized a unique opportunity to share an intimate glimpse of Louis Armstrong, one of the undeniable icons of the 20th century, at home during a time when most human beings around the planet are forced to stay at home.
This could not have been possible without a $2.7 million grant from Robert F. Smith’s Fund II Foundation which allowed the Museum’s Archives–the world’s largest archives for a single jazz musician–to be completely digitized. While the complete Digital Collections can be browsed at https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/, this current site will serve as a way for the Armstrong House staff to curate Virtual Exhibits based on Armstrong’s life at home and the treasures he created there.
Visitors will be able to hear Louis practice, examine his collages, read his writings and basically feel like they are hanging out with Louis Armstrong in his den in Queens. Check back every week for new content but for now, we sincerely thank you for visiting “That’s My Home.”
Take it, Satch.