A Black Flag in Queens

On a quiet Corona street, a jazz center, a house museum, and a domestic revolution

The new building that forms the heart of the Louis Armstrong House Museum “campus” on 107th Street in Corona, Queens, looks—like many of the institutional buildings that have come into the world since Maya Lin and Frank Gehry burned in the new default setting for such architecture—like no place you would ever live or work in, nor like an object you would ever interact with of your own free will. The benign model here would be a church or another place of worship, but that’s not what the Louis Armstrong Center suggests. Power is placeless, and this building uses curves that occur nowhere in nature and only in the largest machines, like the cheek of a propeller or the long tongue of an iron mine chute. Power, to the passerby, appears impressive beyond reason and fully sealed, a doorless obelisk. Set into this residential Corona street, the Armstrong Center is also more than a little hilarious, a comic Ghostbusters shrinking of massive officialdom into a one-room museum next to freestanding single family homes and a Dominican restaurant. With the long, golden sunscreens pulled down on a sunny day, it also looks permanently closed.

The center, designed by architects Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson, also looks like a piano—in this case, one that mirrors the entire neighborhood. The power here is stealth, literally, an ability to signal a powerful legacy and be odd enough to reroute your walk. Executive director Regina Bain told me that special care was taken to make the building “feel musical” and to “reflect back the community.” You can see Louis Armstrong’s house across the street—as you look at the center, reflected on its glass facade, or from within it, through the floor-to-ceiling windows. To use the language of the moment, if you activate the museum, the whole enterprise comes alive. A small museum, like the Jeu de Paume in Paris, focuses the eye and heart. The room known within the museum as “the exhibit” shows us Armstrong’s horn, his home tape deck—more on that later—and his FBI file. (Curated by pianist Jason Moran, the exhibit is officially titled Here to Stay, and it is scheduled to be up indefinitely.) There are vivid snippets from Armstrong’s home recordings and juvenilia from his time in New Orleans. Beyond the exhibit is a small gem of a concert hall, like Avery Fisher Hall in miniature, where kids can take trumpet lessons and bands can gig.

The modesty of the museum brilliantly redirects you back outside. It’s clear you haven’t seen the real gold within all the gold curtains. Across the street is the more vernacular treasure—a small two-story house of aggressive Queens middleclassness that Lucille Armstrong, Louis’s wife, bought for $8,000 in 1943. She found out the house, number 34-56, was for sale from Adele Heraldo, whose house next door, number 34-52, is now the third part of the Louis Armstrong House Museum complex. (Now home to offices, it will eventually host events.) Until her death in 2011, Selma Heraldo, Adele’s daughter, helped visitors at the house and told them about her friends Louis and Lucille. Born Lucille Wilson in 1914, Armstrong’s wife grew up three blocks away. She bought 34-56 with her own money and didn’t tell her husband until eight months later. With Louis on the road for much of the year, the house in Corona became her safe space and her art project. It also housed her mother for several years in the ’40s, a situation that helped them both while Louis’s touring left Lucille virtually widowed. While her mother lived there, Lucille and Louis slept in a very small bedroom off the kitchen that later became a breakfast nook.

From 1950 to 1960, Armstrong went more than a little bit bananas in the den, covering the walls with collages of newspaper and magazine images, affixing most of them with tape. It was like French affichisme gone rogue.

Ricky Riccardi—Armstrong wizard, author of  Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, and staff member of the center—told me that Lucille made just two relatively minor changes after Louis died: the wallpaper, which she replaced in 1976, five years later, and a third, attic-like floor she added for storage. Otherwise, the house is almost exactly as it was when they lived in it. The house is dominated by creams and whites, with carpet pretty much in every room except for the kitchen, itself an astonishing blend of bright blue and white. Chicago company Crown Stove Works made a custom stove for the room and added an engraved plaque to make clear that it had. Both Armstrongs were below five feet eight, and the flower-sconce chandeliers hang low enough to serve as evidence.

The room that has been changed, though, is the den that Louis used. Centered on a large, wooden desk and clad in dark, wooden paneling, the den is where Louis assembled his hundreds of reel-to-reel mixtapes and collages. None of that is there now—in its place is a painting of Satchmo by Tony Bennett (signed “Benedetto”) and a LeRoy Neiman of Gerry Mulligan. (If there is one artist of the ’70s who at the time felt omnipresent and is now invisible, it is Neiman.) From 1950 to 1960, Armstrong went more than a little bit bananas in the den, covering the walls with collages of newspaper and magazine images, affixing most of them with tape. It was like French affichisme gone rogue, and these were also the strategies and images that Armstrong used for the covers of his mixtapes. Lucille ended up removing the whole lot when Louis was on tour, apparently less than pleased by the number of naked women whose images had made their way into his garden of delights.

“The den was all collages and anarchy until 1960, and then Lucille had them taken down,” Riccardi told me. “The den turned into a more normal room, with wallpaper and a few paintings on the wall. Louis still had a desk and shelves for his books and tapes, but the walls were off limits.” Lucille renovated the den once more in the fall of 1968, while Louis was in intensive care, installing wood paneling and a new stereo system. “My hunch is she did it to lure him off the road and to spend more time with his tapes and other hobbies,” Riccardi said. “That 1968 look is the way the den still looks today.”

The collages have been saved and are stored, along with unused collage materials and around seventy-five reel-to-reel tapes, each between one and two hours. “The only two people who have heard all those tapes are me and Louis,” Riccardi said. More than half of them are mixtapes. “He would buy records and grab whatever was on them and dub them to tape,” Riccardi told me. “In some cases, he would just have a microphone on in the room next to the speaker.” He would tape himself playing along with records and having conversations with Lucille or musicians. Sometimes, Armstrong would host parties, and guests would see the tape running. You can hear excerpts of the tapes on the house tour, and on several occasions, Armstrong says, “Well folks,” as though talking to an imagined, but not necessarily imaginary, audience. “It was as if he knew people would be listening,” Riccardi said, “like he knew one day this was going to be something that people were going to want to hear, to get that other half of Armstrong.”

Those tapes helped construct exactly that other Armstrong for Sacha Jenkins’s beautiful documentary from 2023, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, a film that does the necessary work of explaining Armstrong’s career within the context of both jazz history and his role as one of the first widely seen Black entertainers in a world that was largely not ready for that kind of change. Almost certainly the most consequential jazz musician in history, Armstrong struggled in the ’50s and ’60s to find favor with younger and more militant Black audiences who were gravitating toward James Brown and Jimi Hendrix and openly political art. In James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” a musician refers to Armstrong’s work as “that old-time, down-home crap.” Jenkins quotes Amiri Baraka as saying that “a lot of young people resented the way they thought Armstrong was too submissive to the United States.”

The first time I heard about Armstrong was in the ’80s, as a teenager learning about jazz here in New York. Music like his read to me pretty much the way it did to the character in the Baldwin story, and I filed it away with the Fonz and Elvis Presley and everything else corny and small-minded that I felt punk and rap had rightly swept away. Somewhere in there, I read a Miles Davis interview that my memory has likely squeezed and altered, though I don’t think my recollection is far off from the truth. Davis said that anything you could play on a horn, pop or avant-garde, Armstrong had already played. He also said something else, about never wanting to show his teeth on stage, that at the time didn’t make sense to me. Eventually, it did.

This may have been his most radical act—the life itself. The charts and hotels and talk shows were one world conquered, but he and Lucille also lived out a domestic revolution in Corona.

It was the Armstrong who was always smiling and wiping his brow who conquered all the talk shows and stages that no Black performer had ever been on before. In Black & Blues, you hear Armstrong’s words from his diary being read by Nas: “As time went on and I made a reputation, I had to put it in my contracts that I would not play no place I could not stay at. I was the first Negro in the business to crack them big white hotels. Oh, yeah, I pioneered. Pops.”

In Black & Blues, Ossie Davis remembers meeting Armstrong on a movie set and seeing him looking into the distance, sorrowful and unaware. Suspicious of that “down-home” smiling, the young Davis stopped dismissing Armstrong and his work, noting that under the smile was horn playing that could “kill a man.”

Some of that anger was less implicit at home or on the road, where Armstrong also took his tape recorder. “I don’t have no fuckin’ flag other than a black flag,” he told friends in a hotel room in 1952. Though he thought this way in private, in concert, he played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the only version of the song James Baldwin said he could enjoy.

Armstrong’s ways of resisting the United States and its many indignities were dispersed, several of them part of his domestic routine. His tapes capture him talking about managers who called him the N-word to his face, stories he sometimes took to the late-night talk shows, too, without any apology. The image of Armstrong as somehow accommodationist across the board doesn’t hold up, even musically. Miles Davis gets the nod for funk innovations, rightly, but Armstrong was recording with bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Pretty Purdie—funk veterans of Aretha Franklin records, out of hundreds of others—a year before his death. And if knocking the Beatles out of the number one spot on the Hot 100 isn’t pure revolutionary excellence, what is? (Haters will say the cheerful and anodyne “Hello, Dolly” wasn’t the song to do it with, but haters are also at home playing Halo.)

His last big hit, rather than “West End Blues” or the strictly jazz material that critics still wrestle over, is still his signature song for most of the world. “What a Wonderful World” was apparently based in part on his experience in Corona, hearing kids playing and being immersed in a generally audible level of life on the block.

This may have been his most radical act—the life itself. The charts and hotels and talk shows were one world conquered, but he and Lucille also lived out a domestic revolution. In 1940, according to census data, the countywide home ownership rates for Black households was 20 percent, but the tract they lived on had reached 53 percent by 1950. Over time, that rate held steady, until the Latinx population eclipsed the Black cohort. All in the Family shot its exteriors in Glendale, but that Queens neighborhood was way too segregated at the time for a Black family like the Jeffersons to move into. Not Corona, though. “Corona may lack some of the local landmarks that punctuated the script of ‘All in the Family.’ But the demographics fit,” Sam Roberts wrote in a 1993 piece for the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. “The Jeffersons really could have been neighbors of the Bunkers, at least until blacks became a majority on the block and more whites fled.”

Louis and Lucille Armstrong connected with their neighbors daily, inviting kids over to see the house and get impromptu trumpet lessons. The accessibility of the house speaks to a different kind of revolution, one where younger Black musicians and civilians could see the dignity of a comfortable everyday life, free of anyone else’s flag.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. Semiotext(e) published his memoir, Earlier, in October.