107th street in Corona is a small, tree-lined block dotted with single-family homes of clapboard and brick.
If you walk down that street, it’s easy to pass the two-story house at 34-56 without giving it much thought. It’s a modest mid-century home, with a tall front stoop set back from the sidewalk and a simple picture window that brings light into the front room. Around the block, on the busier 37th avenue, kids ride their bikes, people lounge in front of the nearby Catholic church, and the Q23 occasionally rumbles past.
To the extent that there is such thing as a typical Queens neighborhood, this is it.
But there’s one exception. Jazz great Louis Armstrong called this quiet street, and that modest brick house, his home for nearly 30 years.
In the long and complex history of jazz, many places have become legendary. New Orleans is widely considered the birthplace of jazz. Manhattan, Kansas City, Los Angeles and several other cities all became major jazz hubs, with their own signature styles. But Queens made its own unique contribution to jazz, becoming home to numerous jazz musicians and vocalists, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dizzy Gillespie. As jazz writer Greg Thomas noted in an article for the website All About Jazz, “Queens has the special distinction of having been home to the largest collection of famous jazz artists anywhere at any time.”
They came for several reasons. Some musicians liked the relatively bucolic atmosphere and the greater availability of space when compared to Manhattan. For musicians who toured often, Queens was convenient to airports, trains, and highways. Most importantly, the areas where many jazz musicians moved gave them the opportunity to own homes without facing insurmountable racial prejudice. Although jazz musicians settled across the borough, the majority of them clustered in Jamaica, Corona, and Addisleigh Park (St. Albans).
From the 1940′s to the 1960′s, these were neighborhoods in transition. Jamaica, Corona, and Addisleigh Park had been predominantly white neighborhoods, but as economic shifts occurred, as suburbanization lured many white residents to the suburbs, and as lawsuits and legislation defeated restrictive covenants (as was the case in Addisleigh Park) — these areas became havens for many black artists and celebrities.
Louis Armstrong retained one of the strongest connections to his Queens neighborhood. In 1942, he married Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer who had grown up in Queens. The following year, she purchased the house in Corona, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
They both treasured their house, and a tour of the interior attests to this. Despite the simplicity of the outside, Lucille carefully decorated the inside with numerous custom features, including matching wallpaper inside all the closets, custom-made appliances, and custom-designed aquamarine kitchen cabinets. Some of the most distinctive features are found in the bathrooms, where Louis, an ardent fan of Swiss Kriss laxatives (on sale in the gift shop), reportedly spent a lot of time. One bathroom is covered in floor- to-ceiling Mylar wallpaper with speakers installed in the walls. The other bathroom is decorated in gold-plate, white onyx and mirrors.
Louis and Lucille were known for being generous and friendly with their neighbors, and there are many photos of Louis entertaining neighborhood kids. Louis said he and his neighbors were “like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block.” He even suggested that Corona and its residents were a muse for him, that his famous hit “What a Wonderful World” “brings me back to my neighborhood, where I live in Corona.”
“Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille” were neighborhood fixtures for many years. After Louis died in 1971, Lucille continued to live in the house until her death in 1983. The house was declared a landmark in 1988, and has been a museum since 2003. It is run in partnership with Queens College, which houses the Louis Armstrong Archives. Just this week, the museum got its first ever curator, David L. Reese, and it will soon expand its operations with a new visitor center across the street, which is slated to open in 2013.
It’s no secret that Queens is a diverse borough with a unique position in New York City. It combines the convenience, density, and vitality of urban living with a strong neighborhood atmosphere and just a bit more breathing room than its glamorous island counterpart to the west. For many who have called it home — and especially for Louis Armstrong, who rose to stardom and eternal artistic stature from seriously impoverished beginnings — Queens represented a dream fulfilled.
Katie Uva is a PhD candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and the History Lesson columnist for the Queens Beat.
For more on Louis Armstrong and his house, including a tour of the house, check out this resource.
The author wishes to thank Andrew Cannizzaro and Biography for their help with this column.