CBS News correspondent, Steve Hartman, hosted a recurring feature from 1998-2004 entitled “Everybody Has a Story.” in which a dart was thrown at a map of the United States and Hartman would follow the lead into the town, flip through a local phonebook, and pick a random person. Undoubtedly, that person would have something noteworthy he/she does or has done, and like a Dadaist’s version of travel journalism, a concept was born.
As Covid-19 reshapes and often restricts the boundaries of many people’s travel adventures, local treks have become more desirable and safe. The family road trip, like the drive-in theater and the drive up restaurant, so popular during the resurgence of the muscle car, has found themselves being retrofitted to the age of the new normal. We can enjoy the drive-in once again, but our cellphones replace the clunky speakers clipped onto our open car windows.
If one sets a travel perimeter whose center originates at home, there will always be something to see and enjoy. For the more rural and remote locations, that perimeter might need to be made wider than that of the urban landscape. For the purpose of this article, I will set my perimeter at seven miles, since my hometown within Queens, New York owns a wealth of cultural experiences practically within walking distance, and report on one memorable journey.
The Louis Armstrong House and Museum is a jewel within a metropolis. Armstrong could be considered the most famous name in the history of Jazz music. This level of fame juxtaposes the modest home he and his wife Lucille occupied at 34-56 107th St, Corona, NY. The Armstrongs purchased the narrow brick home in 1943 in what was then and still is an ethnically diverse neighborhood.
Due to the coronavirus, the house and museum tours are closed until further notice, but frequent checks on the website will inform the traveler when they will be open for business once again. Until then, one can still view the house from the outside, and walk the same streets “Satchmo” himself walked until his death in 1971. Side note – Armstrong was nicknamed “Satchmo” because of how large his mouth appeared as he was blowing on his trumpet. One can say it was as large as a satchel. So, “satchel mouth” became shortened to “Satchmo,” and the name stuck.
Once the necessary safety regulations are lifted, a visit to the Louis Armstrong House and Museum will offer the visitor a journey back to the early days of Jazz through its exhibitions and archives, as well as a keyhole into the unique decorating styles of the 1970s, mostly chosen by Lucille Armstrong. Guests get a guided tour through the Armstrong home to learn about the incomparable musical genius, as well as connect with the man whose home was trendy at the time but never garish.
In lieu of an in-person tour, the Louis Armstrong House and Museum website offers a virtual video tour of a little under an hour. Director of Research Collections, Ricky Riccardi leads the video tour through the rooms where Louis and Lucille lived and entertained guests. From the state-of-the-arts, blue and clear lucite kitchen with its custom cabinetry and modern conveniences, to the mylar covered walls of the bathroom which features a marble sink and gold-plated fixtures, the home is a portrait in subtle royalty.
The museum, next door to the house, is thoughtfully and reverently curated to showcase the life and work of Louis Armstrong. The adjoining garden is utilized for events and open to guests. In addition, Queens College, through a partnership with the museum, houses a vast archive of documents, tapes and photographs of Armstrong’s life. As an MFA student and writer-in-residence for the museum, I was tasked to examine the private photographic collection as inspiration for a short poetry manuscript I was to create. Through my research of mainly black and white photographs, I became acquainted with a man who gained respect through his humility and renown through his ability. I gained insight into a life part quirky and part legendary, but surrounded constantly with love, love of music, love of humanity, and especially love for Lucille.