The Louis Armstrong House Museum
A robust collection
By Renee Flagler
It’s one thing to enjoy the music of Louis Armstrong on YouTube; experiencing the jazz icon through the museum that bears his name is special.
Located in the New York City borough of Queens, The Louis Armstrong House Museum boasts a remarkable new collection of videos, letters and other personal keepsakes, memorabilia and one-of-a-kind recordings, many of which have never been commercially issued, that document Armstrong’s entire career. The collection comes courtesy of Gösta Hägglöf, the late Swedish music executive and dedicated Armstrong enthusiast, who donated it to the museum. “At age fifteen, when I discovered the great Louis Armstrong, I had no idea that I entered a love affair that will last for the rest of my life,” Gösta Hägglöf once wrote. This “love affair” inspired Hägglöf to become the Swedish oracle of Louis Armstrong. He began to collect Armstrong photos, video and sound clips from all over the world, including Sweden, Belgium, Germany and the United States. When he passed away in 2009, Hägglöf left his entire Armstrong collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
“Gösta Hägglöf devoted his entire life to promoting Louis Armstrong and his musical legacy, amassing a collection of recordings and videos that is totally comprehensive and simply stunning. His generosity in leaving this collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum is major news in the Armstrong community, ensuring that future generations will get the opportunity to enjoy these rare gems for years to come,” says Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s archivist. The collection significantly expands the museums holdings, offering a more engaging experience.
The museum is housed in the actual home that Louis Armstrong, endearingly known as Satchmo, and his wife, Lucille, purchased in 1943 in the modest, working-class neighborhood of Corona. The Armstrongs lived there until they passed away in 1971 and 1983, respectively. Preserved and restored, the House is now a National Historic Landmark in New York City, administered by Queens College of the City University of New York. It is open to the public for 40-minute guided tours that begin every hour and that take visitors on a journey through the lives of Louis and Lucille. Each room is alive with music and recorded conversations between the Armstrongs, filtered through the in-house speaker system. Pictures of Louis and Lucille, souvenirs from their many trips around the world and gifts from famous friends, such as an oil painting that famed crooner Tony Bennett gave to Satchmo shortly before Satchmo’s death, are on display throughout the home. The turquoise kitchen, mirrored bath and reel-to-reel tape recorder in the den provide not only a glimpse of the era in which the Armstrongs lived, but also of the couple’s sophisticated yet cozy lifestyle. The garage serves as the museum store, offering books, music, posters and other paraphernalia for sale.
Programs officer Deslyn Dyer is excited about the museum’s Visitors Center, scheduled to open in 2013. A $15 million “Green” building, it will include an exhibit gallery, archival center and jazz room. “It promises to enhance the cultural offerings in Queens. It will enable the museum to expand its programs and will finally house Louis’ stuff — the largest collection in the world dedicated to a jazz artist — in Louis’ beloved neighborhood of Corona,” she says.
In the summer, concerts are held in the scenic, Japanese-inspired garden, especially on the Fourth of July, in honor of Louis’ traditional birthday. When the weather is favorable, visitors can sit in the garden and listen to rich and colorful narratives about life with the Armstrongs as told by 88-year-old Selma Heraldo, a close friend and neighbor during the entire time the Armstrongs lived in the home.