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Louis Armstrong's Home Offers Glimpse into Great Musician's Life - 2003-12-03

Louis Armstrong known as the most influential figure in the history of jazz, could have lived in a mansion. By 1943, the world-renowned African-American trumpet player from a poor section of New Orleans was a very wealthy man. But that year, Louis and his wife, Lucille, moved into a modest brick house in a working-class community in New York City.

After playing a gig in Manhattan, Louis Armstrong asked a taxi driver to take him to an address across the East River in the borough of Queens.

Mr. Armstrong had not yet seen his new home, purchased by his fourth wife Lucille while he was away on tour.

According to tour guide Kendal Albert, after they arrived, Mr. Armstrong told the driver: "This must be the wrong address. This is a mighty fine house."

"Louis gets out of the cab, goes up the stairs, rings the doorbell," recalled Mr. Albert. "Lo and behold, Lucille opens the door and she is in her nightgown and hair rollers and she says, 'Welcome home, Louis.'"

After Louis died in 1971, Lucille continued to live in the two-story frame house in Corona, Queens until her death in 1983. They donated the house to New York City.

After a $1.6 million renovation, the historic landmark has been turned into a museum. It was upgraded for safety but remains frozen in time.

The interior of the house is quite a contrast from its modest exterior.

Elaborate designs and foils cover every speck of wall. Cocktail jiggers and ashtrays are still in place. The Armstrongs' multi-colored bathmat hangs in the all-mirrored bathroom.

Mr. Albert shows visitors the state-of-the art 1960s kitchen with curved bright turquoise cabinets, a dishwasher with a party setting, a blender built into the counter, and a custom-made six-burner stove.

"On top of this stove is Mrs. Armstrong's teapot," he said. "She acquired this when she went over to England. It has a little cozy on top to keep your tea warm, felt-lined."

The details introduce visitors to the Armstrongs. Most of the articles are reminders of Mrs. Armstrong, who worked for years with one decorator.

But others, such as the motorized chair that took Louis Armstrong up the stairs when he was sick, a portrait painted by musician Tony Bennett and the "wall-to-wall" bed where Louis Armstrong died, provide clues about the jazz great known as "Satchmo."

Louis Armstrong, who developed jazz improvisation, often played his trumpet on a small balcony.

He spent hours at his desk writing long letters in reply to fans and recording reel-to-reel tapes with equipment that is still in place.

Musicologist Michael Cogswell of Queens College, which operates the house museum, spent three years archiving 72 cartons of the Armstrongs' belonging, including 650 home-recordings.

"I never met Louis Armstrong," said Mr. Cogswell. "But I feel like I am meeting him now from working in this house every day, from spending so much time with his photographs and scrap books, meeting people who did know him well, I get a sense that I am meeting Louis Armstrong now and it is a beautiful thing."

In addition to his music, Louis Armstrong was known for his deep laugh and big smile. People who knew him discovered that he was an open and good-natured man.

A goodwill ambassador for the United States, Louis Armstrong had fans throughout the world. But his neighbors in Queens probably knew him best.

An elderly local resident pays his respects to his old neighbor by using a black hose to mimic a trumpet. Whether they were merchants or children, every longtime Corona resident seems to remember the Armstrongs.

"He used to come in my store. He used to come in to get liverwurst and he called my brother 'Cuz,'" said Ann Loyd.

"I remember just how nice he was. He would always come outside and blow the trumpet and he would sing to the kids on the block, basically Hello, Dolly all the time," said a woman named Nancy.

For years, Joe Gibson was Mr. Armstrong's barber. Mr. Gibson says Louis Armstrong always waited his turn in line for a haircut.

"He was my friend," he said. "When he would come to the barbershop you would think we were very close. He had a special stool that's still here in the barbershop. He would sit outside the barbershop in front of the door because he loved to sit and greet the little children."

At 76 years old, Joe Gibson still cuts hair to the music of Louis Armstrong. Photographs of the musician in the barber chair and posters of Mr. Armstrong next to black leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela cover the walls of his shop.

Just minutes from the Louis Armstrong House, "Joe's Artistic Barbershop" is something of a museum, too.