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Louis Armstrong’s museum has gone silent, but ‘Pops’ is still talking

Louis Armstrong entertains the neighborhood kids on the front steps of his Queens home in the summer of 1970. (Chris Barham/Louis Armstrong House Museum)

In life, Louis Armstrong was affectionately known as “Pops,” the always-smiling crowd-pleaser whose trumpet and sandpaper voice dominated popular culture for half a century. That stage persona also sometimes angered younger African Americans, who accused him of clowning and even acting like a “plantation character.”

But the real Armstrong, as revealed through hundreds of home audio recordings he made, was proud, intelligent and sometimes cynical as he negotiated a country dominated by bigotry and segregation.

“I’ve said it for years,” Armstrong tells a friend in 1952, after meeting a Texan who proclaimed himself a fan while admitting he otherwise hated black people. “You take the majority of white people, two-thirds of them don’t like n-----s. But always, they’ve got one n----- they’re just crazy about.”

For years, Armstrong’s personal, reel-to-reel tapes have been a kind of hidden jewel, recognized and accessed by scholars and jazzniks through the archives at Queens College. But this week, the Louis Armstrong House Museum, also in Queens, launched a free, curated online program to bring the material to a wider public. “That’s My Home” is the richly designed story of Armstrong told in chapters with archival photos, essays from research collections director Ricky Riccardi, and a wealth of fascinating sound clips.

There is no silver lining in the sea of cancellations, furloughs and shuttered galleries in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, but “That’s My Home” wouldn’t be happening without the shutdown.

The nonprofit Armstrong House Museum opened in 2003 in the modest home Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, lived in from 1943 until his death in 1971 at the age of 69. Its five full-time staffers spent much of the past year planning exhibits, fundraising and overseeing a building expansion that’s expected to be completed in 2021. Then, on March 13, the museum closed as New York braced for a health crisis. Later that month, with the Queens College archives also closed, the museum staff brainstormed about ways to share the rich materials in their possession. The online project emerged.

“The government’s using that word, ‘pause,’ ” says Jeff Rosenstock, the museum’s acting director. “It’s a time to actually think. Usually, there’s no time for that. This is really a chance to see how precious life is, how precious time is. Do we want to jump back and start over or do we want to think about a couple of changes right now?”

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The brick house on 107th Street was not just where Armstrong lived. For a kid who grew up in a poor New Orleans neighborhood known as “The Battlefield” and then spent hundreds of days each year on the road, the simple home gave him grounding and a base. No matter how famous he got, he remained accessible, sitting on the stoop to chat with children in the neighborhood and regularly having guests over for dinner.

His third wife, Lucille, found the two-family home in the Corona section of Queens and paid $8,000 for it — about $120,000 in today’s dollars. By then, Armstrong was already a star whose résumé included some of the most important jazz records ever made, from his Dixieland sides in the 1920s to his scat duets with Ella Fitzgerald. Late in life, Armstrong would have his greatest commercial success, with 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!” knocking the Beatles out of the No. 1 slot in the United States. He would top the pop charts in England and Austria three years later with “What a Wonderful World,” another signature tune that, incredibly, didn’t crack the Top 100 in the United States until it was featured in the 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

In 1950, Armstrong bought his first reel-to-reel recorder and did a short test of the machine backstage in Los Angeles, a moment included in the first chapter of “That’s My Home,” which is called “Eulogizing the Chops: Louis Armstrong Warms Up.” The clips offer a glimpse into Armstrong’s creative process. In a 1951 entry, he plays his trumpet over a 1923 record of his session with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Oliver insisted on playing and his melody got lost in the muddy mix. On the tape, Armstrong’s powerful horn punches through as he overpowers the record. Another clip finds Armstrong doing a solo interpretation of Franz Schubert’s “Serenade” from 1952. Near the end of the chapter, there’s a 1970 recording of Armstrong at home trying to recover from health problems, pushing through “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from “Show Boat.” It is the last home recording of his horn before his death after a heart attack the following July.

Future chapters of “That’s My Home” will find Armstrong talking about his neighborhood, his habit of creating collages with magazine clippings and other pieces of paper, and his record collection, which ranged from Stravinsky to Thelonious Monk and the Beatles. (“I say [the Beatles] are great. They got a little beat there, you know what I mean, and it’s all right.”) There will also be regular snippets from his home life, including dinners with friends and even arguments with Lucille.

“You know that horn comes first,” Armstrong tells her during one of them.

“I come first and then the horn,” she responds.

“The horn comes first,” Armstrong counters.

There are plans for a dozen chapters, though that could shift. The archives contain approximately 1,500 hours of audio, thousands of images and Armstrong’s papers.

Maxine Gordon visited Queens College as she worked on a book about her late husband, the saxophonist Dexter Gordon. She knew Gordon had played in Armstrong’s band in 1944. In the archive, she found a photo of the two from that era and a recording in which Armstrong spoke in detail about touring with that band to segregated Army bases.

“The collection is, in my experience, the most valuable history of jazz that we have,” says Gordon.

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Museums are full of experts who are passionate about their subjects. Riccardi, 39, has a connection that goes beyond that.

“He says he comes to work for Mr. Armstrong,” says Rosenstock. “Only two people have heard everything that Armstrong recorded. Louie Armstrong and Ricky.”

That’s proved invaluable as Riccardi and Sarah Rose, an archivist at the museum, have worked to quickly bring “That’s My Home” to life.

“I usually describe him as having a bit of an eidetic memory,” says Rose. “He’s able to call up specific pieces of information even if he’s only heard them once or twice.”

In the mid-’90s, when other kids were listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Riccardi was in middle school going through what he calls his Jimmy Stewart phase. That led him to watch “The Glenn Miller Story,” a 1954 film that featured Stewart as the “In the Mood” bandleader of the title. Armstrong played himself in the film, performing “Basin Street Blues.”

“He was funny,” says Riccardi. “He was a great singer. He had a different voice. His trumpet playing was spectacular. And that one five-minute clip hit me between the eyes. That’s when I said, ‘All right, I need to explore this deeper.’ ”

Riccardi earned a master’s in jazz history and research at Rutgers University and finished his 350-page thesis on Armstrong’s later years in 2005. During this time, he discovered the Armstrong tapes at Queens College. After graduation, he painted houses for several years, packing his iPod Classic with Armstrong recordings before starting at the Armstrong House Museum in 2009. His first book, the critically praised “What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Armstrong’s Later Years,” was published in 2011.

“I was born nine years after he died,” says Riccardi. “I interviewed everybody I could find who was still alive, but I didn’t have his voice. So, when I started listening to those tapes — this is as a researcher; this is before I got the job — the lightbulb went off for me. That that’s why he did this. He knew his importance, the history.”

The early chapters of “That’s My Home” focus on recordings made in Queens. But there are other tapes that Riccardi says he’ll likely share, particularly those that reveal how Armstrong viewed race and responded to being disrespected. During his lifetime, Armstrong was sometimes criticized for not being political enough. Trumpet star Dizzy Gillespie, in a 1949 interview, even called him “the plantation character that so many of us … younger men … resent.” Asked about his “clowning” on one tape, Armstrong sets the interrogator straight.

“What is clowning?” he says. “Clowning is when you can’t play nothing.”

“He went through hell,” says Riccardi. “He saw lynching. He went days without food. He had to quit school. [He endured] his band getting arrested because they had the manager’s white wife on the bus, Louis being called the n-word before going out on the radio. … He went through hell and he still came out this incredible, positive spirit.”

On a recording made in 1970, after Lucille asks him to erase some of the tapes — she wasn’t thrilled that he’d captured some of their often-profane arguments — he sums up his intent to be candid about his legacy.

“My life,” says Armstrong, “has always been an open book. So I have nothing to hide.”