By Joe Anuta
To close out Black History Month, the Louis Armstrong House Museum offered free tours of the jazz legend’s humble Corona home and also sought to solidify Armstrong’s often-disputed role in the civil rights movement.
Armstrong, born in 1901, was an international celebrity and millionaire. He rubbed elbows with the highest echelons of society, appeared in about 30 films and changed the face of jazz and American popular music with his singular trumpet playing and iconic voice — yet his brick house, at 34-56 107th St., is unimaginably quaint.
“He could have lived anywhere,” said Al Pomerantz, who conducted one of the tours. “He could have bought a brownstone in Harlem or a mansion in Long Island.”
Instead, visitors filed through Armstrong’s blue 1960s modern kitchen and the Chinese-style dining room covered with a linoleum-floor. Armstrong’s wife Lucille did not spare on 1960s and ’70s style as evidenced by the dwelling’s two gaudy, opulent bathrooms where Armstrong likely spent many hours — he was an adamant user and promoter of Swiss Kriss, a laxative.
In his den, Armstrong had a reel-to-reel tape recorder installed into the wall. He used it to capture more than 650 spools of interviews, conversations and music that took place during the brief periods when the trumpeter was not touring the country and or the globe.
It is on these reels that Armstrong privately expressed his feelings about race in America during the turbulent 1950s and ’60s, according to Deslyn Dyer, assistant director of the museum.
Many of Armstrong’s contemporaries, like Dizzy Gillespie, accused the performer of bowing to the white population’s demands and not standing up for struggling blacks, she said. But in private Armstrong did quite the opposite until his death in 1971.
“The archives are full of audio tapes of what he thought about being a black man in America,” Dyer said. “Sometimes his views were harsh.”
It is hard to imagine Armstrong having no feelings about race. He was brought up in a poor segregated New Orleans neighborhood known as “The Battlefield,” according to Pomerantz.
Armstrong once dined with the royal family in England, and shortly afterward when he returned to America, he was denied the use of a bathroom in a diner because of Jim Crow laws.
But publicly, Armstrong is better known for his statement, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.”
Dyer said that Armstrong’s contribution to civil rights was not through speaking out against the government, although he did so during the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident when he called former President Dwight Eisenhower “gutless” and defiantly canceled a state-sponsored tour to the Soviet Union. He contributed through his music and popularity.
“It’s important to point out that Louis Armstrong was advocating for civil rights just by being who he was,” Dyer said. “For a lot of his life, he made changes quietly.”
Armstrong had an integrated band and was the first black actor to have his name credited in a film.
According to Dyer, Armstrong was so popular abroad that he became an ambassador of America and changed many people’s perceptions about race.
And a visit to Armstrong’s home will solidify the fact that he just wanted to be a normal guy. A letter handwritten by Armstrong sits in the exhibition area of the museum. He describes his love for the local barber shop, the neighborhood children and his favorite Chinese restaurant down the block.
“Whether you were the Queen of England or fresh out of prison, he treated you like his buddy,” Pomerantz said. “He was a true civil rights pioneer who needs to get more credit.”
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.