Heart of Louisiana: The story of Louis Armstrong

Story originally published in 2014
Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 8:59 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - He is a world-renowned musician and entertainer and New Orleans' favorite son.

But once he reached adulthood, Louis Armstrong left Louisiana and made his home elsewhere for the rest of his life.

"I never want to be any more than I am, and what I don't have I don't need it." – Louis Armstrong.

It was a life that began in 1901 in his great grandmother's house on Jane Alley in New Orleans. The house and street were replaced in the 1960's by a new police station and city court.

An arrest by New Orleans police sparked the beginning of one of the greatest musical and entertainment careers in American history. A 12-year-old Louis Armstrong got in trouble for firing a pistol into the air on New Year's Eve. He ended up in the Colored Waif's Home where he learned how to play this cornet.

"Armstrong confirmed that this was the instrument that he learned to play on," said Greg Lambousy with the La. State Museum. "And he knew for sure that it was it because it had notches that he had put in the mouthpiece to help kind of get a grip on the mouthpiece."

This cornet and other Armstrong memorabilia are housed in the Louisiana State Museum at the old U.S. Mint.

"We have a number of his letters," added Lambousy. "He often signed them 'red beans and rice-ly yours.'"

Armstrong's young career blossomed. He played jazz in local clubs and on paddle wheelers that cruised the Mississippi River. At the age of 21, he left New Orleans for good. He played in Chicago, made movies in Hollywood and finally bought a house in Queens, New York with his fourth wife Lucille.

"They purchased it March, 1943 for $8,000. He had never really had a house like this before," said Ricky Riccardi with the Louis Armstrong Home Museum. "The first time he saw it, he thought it was a mansion. It's really not a mansion. It's kind of an Archie Bunker kind of typical working-class home here in a working-class neighborhood."

Armstrong lived at the Queens home until he died in 1971. He is buried in Queens. Lucille stayed until she died 12-years later.

The house, all of the original furnishings and Armstrong's amazing collection of music, manuscripts and photographs were all donated to the public.

"Armstrong was very aware of his importance and he knew that his rags-to-riches story was interesting," added Riccardi. "He knew that people, you know, found it fascinating, so he was always about documenting his life."

It's as if the Armstrong's stepped out for a few minutes and invited you to explore their home.

The home is literally alive with the sounds of Armstrong and his wife Lucille. They made hundreds of home-recorded reel-to-reel audio tapes that are now part of the archives.

"Talking about music, talking about racism, talking about drugs, talking about politics, telling dirty jokes," explained Riccardi. "He would just let the tape recorder run."

In Armstrong's favorite room, his den, you hear him telling friends about his collections of music, including Beatles records.

"I've got the Beatles, I've got everybody. And they say 'what you think about the Beatles?' And I say 'they are great, they've got a little beat there. You know what I mean? And it's all right,'" said a recording of Armstrong.

"You listen to these tapes, he is the life of the party, he is the best joke teller, he is the friendliest, warmest human being you can imagine," added Riccardi.

Visitors can also hear that in this dinner conversation with Lucille

Armstrong: What's that babe, macaroni? Brussel sprouts?

Lucille:  love them. 

Armstrong: Who is that asked me was brussel sprouts raised in Brussels?

Lucille:  How about that.

Armstrong loved his neighborhood. He could watch kids play from the window of his den. He would sit on his steps and teach kids how to play the horn and neighbors could hear Louis practicing his trumpet.

But Louis Armstrong never forgot the city where he learned to play.

"Every night, his concerts would always feature a segment or he would say 'we're going to take a little trip to my home town of New Orleans,'" said Riccardi. "So he exuded New Orleans in everything he did."

Armstrong's musicianship was genius. He was a world renowned entertainer and in this house he was a husband and friend.

"I've always loved and I always lived a normal life, which I appreciate very much. And I've always loved everybody, still do." – Louis Armstrong.

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