Culture Magazine

The Egalitarian Proclivities of Louis Armstrong

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901, dropped out of school as a child and was a successful touring musician in his early 20s. By 1929, he was living in Harlem, though as one of the most popular recording artists in the country, he traveled about 300 nights a year. In 1939, he met his fourth and final wife, Lucille Wilson, a dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club. Lucille, who spent part of her childhood in Corona, decided it was time for her husband to settle down in a house, a real house, instead of living out of hotel rooms. (Even their wedding took place on the road, in St. Louis, at the home of the singer Velma Middleton.) One day, when Armstrong was away at a gig, she put a down payment of $8,000 (around $119,000 in today's money) on 34-56 107th Street. She didn't tell him she'd done this until eight months later, during which time she made the mortgage payments herself. [...]
From the outside, the two-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house looks just like any other on the block, which was deliberate. Armstrong often referred to himself as "a salary man" and felt at ease alongside the telephone operators, schoolteachers and janitors of Corona, a neighborhood that, in a testament to how much of his life was spent in jazz clubs, he referred to affectionately as "that good ol' country life." One of the earliest integrated areas of New York, Corona was mostly home to middle-class African-Americans and Italian immigrants when the Armstrongs moved in. The demographics would change in the coming decades - Latin Americans began replacing the Italians in the '60s, and now make up most of the neighborhood - but not much else. There was never a mass wave of gentrification or development here, and Armstrong himself was so concerned with blending in with his working-class neighbors that when his wife decided to give the house a brick facade, Armstrong went door-to-door down the block asking the other residents if they wanted him to pay for their houses to receive the same upgrade. (A few of his neighbors took him upon the offer, which accounts for the scattered presence of brick homes on the street to this day.) [...]
He played behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and in the Democratic Republic of Congo during decolonization in 1960, during which both sides of a civil war called a truce to watch him perform, then picked up fighting again once his plane took off. There are few American figures as legendary and beloved, and yet, as Harris told me, a common reaction people have upon entering his home is, "This reminds me of my grandmother's house." Certainly the living room recalls a '60s vision of Modernism with a vaguely minimalist formality.

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