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The Armstrong Collection

By Michael Cogswell | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

The life of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong was a screenwriter's dream. Born into poverty in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, he rose to become one of America's most influential musicians. He became a cultural icon around the world and along the way endeared himself to millions of fans, from men's room attendants to heads of state.

When he died in 1971, his fellow musician Duke Ellington observed: "He was born poor, died rich, and didn't hurt anyone along the way."

Although almost everyone recognizes the name Louis Armstrong from nightclubs, movies, and television, fewer are aware of the diversity of his accomplishments: He developed a way of playing jazz still followed today and left his mark both as an instrumentalist and a vocalist; he made hit recordings for forty years, and more than a dozen of his sixty compositions became standards; he wrote two autobiographies, thousands of letters, and hundreds of pages of memoirs; he appeared in more than thirty films; and he spent three hundred days a year on the road here and abroad.

Many of the papers, trumpets, recordings, and memorabilia tracing his life are now kept in the modest home in Queens where Armstrong and his wife Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer, lived for nearly thirty years.

Armstrong, who lived out of a suitcase while on tour with his band, had no interest in owning a home. It was Lucille who discovered the frame house in the working-class neighborhood of Corona in 1943, acquired it, and decorated it without Armstrong ever having seen it. In an autobiographical manuscript, he describes coming home late after a performance and seeing the house for the first time:

"And me, I've never been to this house before, why I could not tell him anything as far as directions (etc.) how to get there. So the cab driver finally found the house. And when he looked around to the back of the cab and said to me, 'O.K. this is the place.' 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.'"

Lucille answered the door and gave him a tour:

"The more Lucille showed me around the house the more thrilled I got. Yea you hear?--I got (tee hee). Right then I felt very grand all over it all. A little higher on the horse (as we express it). I've always appreciated the ordinary good things."

By 1943 Armstrong was already a superstar. The fact that he chose a modest home in Queens over a mansion in Beverly Hills or an estate on Long Island--while giving away a fortune in cash and gifts--is one of the revealing facets of his life. He cherished his down-to-earth existence in Corona. He had his hair cut at Joe's Artistic Barber Shop on 106th Street. When he returned from a road trip, neighborhood children would greet the band bus and help him carry his trumpet and suitcases inside. Then Lucille would fix everyone a bowl of ice cream while they watched westerns on television.

Although they remained in this house for the rest of their lives--Armstrong refused to consider moving--the two made many changes. In the downstairs bathroom they covered every inch of the walls and ceiling with mirrors and installed an onyx pedestal sink and gold-plated fixtures from Europe. They enclosed the front porch and removed two interior walls to create a seventy-foot living room, which they filled with upholstered furniture and oil paintings. Upstairs they added a dressing room covered completely in silver foil, including the insides of the drawers. In later years they acquired the lot next door and created an elaborate garden complete with a pond for Japanese koi. What was originally a clapboard-sided house typical of Queens was transformed by many grand, and sometimes gaudy, improvements.

Louis Armstrong died there in his sleep on July 6, 1971. The house became a national historic landmark in 1977, and after Lucille's death in 1983 was willed to New York City. The contents of the house became the property of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, a private, not-for-profit foundation.

The house was found to be filled with treasures: home-recorded tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and other items. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the material to Queens College so that it could be made available to the public. In 1991, Queens College began a three-year project --funded primarily by an NEH Preservation and Access grant--to arrange, preserve, and catalog "Satchmo's stuff." The archives opened to the public May 24, 1994.

The collection includes 650 reel-to-reel tapes in hand-decorated boxes, 1,600 commercially issued sound recordings, 86 scrapbooks, 5,000 photographs, 120 awards and plaques, 270 sets of manuscript band parts, twelve linear feet of personal papers, correspondence, and autobiographical manuscripts, five gold-plated trumpets, and fourteen trumpet mouthpieces (many of them custom-made).

One fascinating discovery was Armstrong's collection of home-recorded tapes. Armstrong traveled everywhere with a bulky trunk that contained one or sometimes two reel-to-reel tape decks and a turntable so that he could listen to music while he was relaxing in the dressing room or hotel room. More than two hundred of the tapes contain dubs of commercial recordings and are of interest because they document what the master musician listened to for pleasure. (Guy Lombardo and Italian pop singer Ray Martino were favorites.) But Armstrong also had a wonderful habit of letting his tape deck record while he was hanging out with band members or backstage visitors. At least four hundred of Armstrong's reels capture dressing room visitors swapping jokes and stories, musicians sharing stories of racial discrimination and other travails of life on the road, Armstrong warming up before a performance, Armstrong reminiscing into his tape recorder, Armstrong being interviewed by reporters, and so on. With an NEH grant and a subsequent grant from the Save America's Treasures program, these tapes are being preserved and cataloged so that future generations can hear him chatting with a hotel maid or playing trumpet along with some 78rpm discs that he recorded forty years earlier.

He created detailed contents listings for most of the tapes. The archive contains three manuscript catalogs with citations of performers, titles, and tape speed. He typically concluded each listing by writing "S'all," (i.e., "that's all on this tape"). Not only did he record 650 reels of tape and catalog their contents, he decorated the tape boxes. He cut out photographs, telegrams, postcards, news clippings and other materials and incorporated them into collages on the front and back of the seven-inch square boxes. Historians knew that Louis Armstrong was an instrumentalist, a vocalist, an actor, and a writer, but had little inkling that he was also a visual artist.

Another of Armstrong's hobbies was writing. He traveled with a typewriter from the early twenties. It was not unusual for him to dash off a five-page, single-spaced, typed letter--with headers and footers ("next page please") --to a casual acquaintance. He produced a wealth of autobiographical writing, much of which appeared in two published autobiographies (Swing That Music and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans) and a dozen magazine articles. More than 250 new pages of autobiographical manuscript were also found, much of it published for the first time in Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (Oxford University Press, 1999).

The Louis Armstrong Archives collects approximately one hundred new acquisitions each year. Perhaps the most stunning recent addition is a gold-plated Selmer trumpet given to Armstrong by King George V in 1933. Armstrong in turn gave the trumpet to Lyman Vunk, a performer with the Charlie Barnett Orchestra, apparently because Vunk admired it backstage. It was Vunk's prized possession for the rest of his life. ("This is a gold-plated trumpet that the King of England gave to Louis Armstrong and Louis gave it to me.") In 1995, Lyman Vunk's widow donated the trumpet to the Louis Armstrong Archives.

In 1986, New York City designated the Armstrong house a New York City landmark and granted Queens College a license to develop and operate it as a museum. Today, the Armstrong house looks as it did during Lucille's last days. With major funding from the Queens borough president and from the Save America's Treasures program under an NEH-sponsored grant, the $1.4 million project to open the Armstrong house as a historic house museum is in the design stage. Construction will begin in 2001.

Since the Armstrong archives opened in 1994, more than ten thousand visitors have viewed exhibitions. Two hundred researchers have conducted hands-on research, two scholars have produced major works, and dozens of record companies and periodicals have published photos from the collections. Staff members have loaned artifacts to ten other venues (including two in Japan), and have presented more than one hundred outreach programs to public schools, public libraries, senior centers, universities, and professional societies.

Beginning in 1987 with the publication of Gary Giddins's Satchmo and with the discovery of the materials now housed at the Louis Armstrong Archives, there has been a revival in the study of Louis Armstrong and his contributions. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services sponsored the exhibition "Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy," which toured the nation from 1994 to 1996. In 1999, Princeton University began offering a course on Armstrong's music and this year Columbia University has done the same. His personal collection of home-recorded tapes, manuscripts, collages, artifacts, papers, photographs, memorabilia--and even his residence--will be available to future generations. Visitors to the Armstrong house and archives sometimes ask: "Why did Louis Armstrong record these candid dressing-room tapes?" "Who was he writing this manuscript for?" The answer is that he did it for us.