Armstrong Center Offers New Understanding of ‘Pops’


On July 6, the hottest day in recorded history, a new institution devoted to the man who gave the world “hot” jazz — and infinitely more — opened its doors in Queens, New York, for the first time. It was very cool inside. The Louis Armstrong Center — with its sleek styling, multitudinous artifacts, acoustically attuned performance space and ethos of integration into the community — promises to set a standard for institutions dedicated to a musician’s legacy.

Not incidentally, it is also an impressively scaled edifice that, despite being squeezed between a row of modest homes, somehow seems a natural fit in the quiet neighborhood of Corona.

That is fitting. For 38 years, until his death in 1971, Armstrong lived in a home directly across 107th Street from where the center now stands. And like the center, Armstrong seemed to dominate the neighborhood even as he fit into it, according to Lori Jones, a Corona native who, as a girl, often encountered Armstrong on the block.

“We called it Louis Armstrong’s block,” she said, standing in the center’s swank lobby amid a swell of opening-day visitors and the piped-in sounds of Armstrong’s seminal Hot Five. Soaking it all in, she wistfully recalled the treats he and his wife, Lucille, bestowed on neighborhood children in and around their home — itself a national historic site and museum, thanks to Lucille’s efforts.

To be sure, the center, which has been drawing a steady stream of visitors since it opened, offers much to confirm Jones’ rose-colored view of Armstrong’s legacy. It is a view widely held by members of the public, many of whom will be familiar with the broad outlines of his rise from New Orleans waif to beloved global figure, even if they are unfamiliar with the details.

But Ricky Riccardi, director of research operations for the house museum and center, was ready to add nuance to that view. Tearing himself away from answering visitors’ questions on the welcoming first floor, he entered a wholly different world on the second: one of cubicles, offices and a heavily secured inner sanctum where he could mine the archival “stacks” for gold.

Many of the pieces in these stacks were precious — a book inscribed to Armstrong by Langston Hughes, rare big-band arrangements, four Armstrong trumpets, for starters. And Riccardi, a font of Armstrong minutiae with superior recall of the center’s holdings, instantly knew where the best stuff was stored.

Zeroing in on one of Armstrong’s 85 scrapbooks, he quickly found what he was seeking: a review from London’s Daily Herald of the 32-year-old Armstrong’s performance at the Palladium on his first trip to England, in July 1932. Smiling, Riccardi waved the review in the climate-controlled air before cheekily foreshadowing its contents.

“He saved the good, the bad and the ugly,” Riccardi said of Armstrong.

The review, to be blunt, was ugly. Clearly unmoored by the freedom implicit in a performer who could command a stage with such radical abandon — strutting, smiling, waving an ever-present handkerchief and using his gravelly voice to sublime effect before closing the show on trumpet with a hundred high C notes — the reviewer ripped Armstrong’s musical style, his stage presentation, even his physiognomy. And while that view was not universal among the press — Riccardi produced an editorial in the Evening News equating the critiques of Armstrong with those of other maligned geniuses — it was, in some manner or form, accepted by many high-minded scribes.

“The articles of the time — that’s DownBeat, too, all the magazines — had a very tough time trying to understand what was actually happening in the music,” said pianist and educator Jason Moran, who curated the center’s public-facing, first-floor exhibit Here to Stay. “But fortunately, with Armstrong we have this much distance after his life to really start to let that bake in with how complex a time he was dealing with and how complex that music was.”

In the 60,000-plus items housed within its 14,000 square feet, the Armstrong Center has enough material to deal with the complexities of Armstrong’s life and times. His United Kingdom experience is illustrative: In 1934, just two years after the performances that generated such critical vitriol, King George V gave Armstrong a gold-plated Selmer trumpet with “SATCHMO” engraved under the rim of the mouthpiece. On display in the Moran-curated exhibit, the gift highlights the stark contrasts in views of Armstrong — and that suggests the dangers of viewing his legacy simplistically. Doing so can obscure the man’s role in advancing social justice.

In the public imagination, Armstrong is often seen as a joyful ambassador for American values, a facet of his persona that the archives address in many ways. Among them is a benign photo of him meeting Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. The photo is incorporated in one of the 750 collages Armstrong assembled, modernistic works of art that, like the discursive reel-to-reel tapes they adorn, allowed him to shape the narrative of his life for posterity.

But the exhibit also alludes to a more complex side to Armstrong’s ambassadorial role by referencing a theatrical suite by Dave and Iola Brubeck, The Real Ambassadors. Brubeck was himself part of the elite group of jazz musicians who, starting in the mid-1950s, were sent overseas by the State Department on so-called goodwill tours. Brubeck asked Armstrong to star in his piece, which, the exhibit notes, was “inspired by Armstrong’s role as America’s cultural ambassador.”

The suite dealt with the cynical use of jazz musicians as vehicles to promote a vision of America abroad that was at odds with the reality at home. It drew on Armstrong’s role in the 1957 case of the Little Rock Nine, in which he castigated President Dwight D. Eisenhower for hesitating to pressure segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus to obey a court order allowing nine Black schoolchildren to integrate a local high school. The incident generated global headlines, and Armstrong, loath to become a tool of American propaganda, had second thoughts about a planned tour of the Soviet Union.

Armstrong was soon in the crosshairs of the F.B.I., as a redacted page of his bureau file, obtained in the 1990s under the Freedom of Information Act and displayed in the public exhibit, shows. Referencing a report dated Oct. 16, 1957, from the Washington News, the page notes that the Arkansas University student senate had withdrawn an invitation for Armstrong to appear at the school’s prom. “Armstrong, a vehement critic of Gov. Orval Faubus,” the page states, “had said he would be glad to play at Arkansas, but would be sorry if Gov. Faubus were to hear any of the ‘beautiful notes coming out of my horn.’”

“His career could have been over after he spoke out about the Little Rock Nine,” said Regina Bain, executive director of the house museum and center. “There were so many who didn’t want him to travel around the world as an ambassador.”

Public figures, from Bing Crosby to Jackie Robinson, spoke up for Armstrong. And, belatedly, Eisenhower sent in troops to enforce the desegregation order. Nine years later, Eisenhower, out of office, sent Armstrong a telegram wishing him a happy birthday. Three years after that, then-President Richard M. Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice-president in 1957, sent Armstrong a similar greeting. Both telegrams are in the center archives, odd counterpoints to the malevolence of the F.B.I. file.

“I wanted to make sure that was visible,” Moran said of the file, “because that’s how treacherous the time was. I wanted people to see that — that he has to be watched because he’s telling people what freedom sounds like.”

Musicians today are hearing that call, and the center is encouraging them to do so. Under its Armstrong Now program, it is hosting performers at the center’s 75-seat Jazz Room, just off the main exhibition space. They include esperanza spalding and the Antonio Brown Dance Company and poet-musician Amyra Leon. All will explore the archives and create new material based on them while in residence the week before their shows.

The center commissioned Marquis Hill, with fellow trumpeters Bruce Harris and Giveton Gelin, to write pieces drawing on the Armstrong legacy that they performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. In developing the piece, Hill said he was originally inspired by a contentious incident in which Armstrong, booked for the 1957 Newport festival, made beautiful music despite his anger at unexpectedly being asked, as Dan Morgenstern put it in the Village Voice, “to serve as anchorman for a parade of performers at the expense of his own group’s self-respect.”

Hill was further inspired by archival tapes in which Armstrong expresses interest in all kinds of music — a sentiment supported by the diversity of his 2,000 archived records, which include Chopin, Verdi and Nelson Eddy singing Stephen Foster. With that as background, Hill, joined by pianist Mathis Picard, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Herlin Riley, created a piece that aimed to capture some of the man’s musical and emotional complexity.

“It’s rooted in beauty but also keeps in mind his anger and struggle,” Hill said. DB

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