The question is always asked: why Corona, Queens? Louis Armstrong could have lived anywhere–so why a working class neighborhood in the largest borough of New York?
The person most responsible for choosing Corona was Louis’s fourth wife, Lucille Wilson Armstrong. When they married on October 15, 1942, Louis was living out of the Hotel Olga in Harlem, spending much of his time on the road. After a honeymoon spent on an unending number of one-nighters, Lucille decided to put a down payment on the home for sale at 34-56 107th Street in Corona. She also decided not to tell him, as she related in this interview clip from 1973:
After telling Louis about their new abode, Lucille left him alone on tour so she could go back and prepare their new home for his arrival in the fall of 1943. Later in life, Louis wrote down the story of his first time seeing it, a document found in the Armstrong House after he and Lucille passed away and now part of our Archives thanks to a donation by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation to Queens College:
Now feeling a little “higher on the horse,” Louis fell completely in love with his community, never having any desire to move away during the last 28 years of his life. In this audio clip, Lucille talks about Louis’s effect as a “pied piper” to the kids on the block:
As Lucille referenced, the barber shop–specifically Joe’s Artistic Barber Shop on 106th Street–became a central spot for Louis to congregate with his neighbors, as shown in this photograph found in one of his late scrapbooks:
Louis even wrote about the experience of getting his haircut in Corona, either at Joe’s or a Spanish barber shop, depending on who was open at the time he needed a trim:
On the fourth page of “Barber Shops,” Louis tells of a memorable day at the Spanish barber shop, where also many of the conversations would revolve around music with the people from multiple nationalities: “And they all remembered me when I was touring all over the world –blowing my little trumpet –singing and entertaining them, which they’re very happy to remind me of it. Just think in those days. They all (most of them) have married and have big families and have instilled in their children’s minds how they enjoyed Louis Satchmo Armstrong’s music. And their kids should do the same. I see the warmth the foreigners give to me –the same as my soul brothers.” He felt inspired to ask them for musical recommendations, eventually buying a record and adding it to his private collection.
He took great pains to write in capital letters, “LOS EXITOS DE ARMANDO,” calling it “a real beautiful album.” Sure enough, Armstrong dubbed a copy of Angel Maldanado’s LP Los Exitos De Armando Manzanero, to “Reel 169” of his reel-to-reel tape collection. Other entries on that tape included audio of Armstrong’s February 1971 appearances on The David Frost Show and The Dick Cavett Show, meaning this was most likely dubbed either at the very end of February 1971 or after Armstrong returned home in May from a life-threatening heart attack he suffered in March.
In this period, shortly before he passed away on July 6, Louis also wrote “Our Neighborhood,” a handwritten document that has been enjoyed by thousands of visitors to the Louis Armstrong House Museum since opening in 2003. For our “That’s My Home” series, we feel is it appropriate to share the entire manuscript here:
To Lucille Armstrong, her husband remained the “man on the street” until the end of his life, as she explained in this 1973 interview clip:
Lucille’s feelings are borne out in the feelings expressed by the other neighbors on the block in this New York Post article published the week Louis passed away in 1971. Lucille saved a copy in one of her scrapbooks:
This priceless footage from Italian television shows Armstrong’s Corona neighborhood in mourning on the day of Armstrong’s funeral:
Today, neighbors take pride in having a museum dedicated to Louis’s legacy on the block. They have also been kind enough to patiently wait through the construction of the museum’s new center, which will be the new home for Louis Armstrong House Museum’s Archives. Researchers will soon be able to listen to Louis’s private tapes and read his writings while looking right across the street to his den, all while getting a glimpse of today’s residents of 107th Street. Some of those familiar faces were photographed in 2018 by the lens of Chris Mottalini for the architecture magazine, Curbed.
At the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Armstrong’s neighbors often come back with fascinating stories that paint vivid images of their encounters with the block’s most famous resident. We will be devoting a future installment of “That’s My Home” to the stories of some of the individual neighbors on the block who knew Louis like Selma Heraldo and Denise Pease. We would also like to share other stories of encounters with Louis either in Queens or around the world. Did you meet Louis Armstrong? Let us know in the comments below!
To end on a musical note, in “Our Neighborhood,” Armstrong wrote that “the whole neighborhood rejoice at hearing” him play the trumpet every day. If he didn’t play for a few days, Lucille would immediately get calls asking, “Is Pops okay?” We have already done an entire post on the sounds of Armstrong’s trumpet warming up at home, but we’re thrilled that live music continues to thrive at 34-56 107th Street. Often, trumpeters make the pilgrimage to Louis’s House and let the notes fly away again on the block. To close this look at Louis’s neighborhood, here is the legendary Jon Faddis playing “West End Blues” and “What a Wonderful World” in our Garden. We cannot wait to welcome everyone back!