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Expert Witness

Louis Armstrong House Museum

30-X-100 for the people

It's under an hour from my apartment--mostly on the 7 train, which on its northern side affords a fine view of the 5 Pointz graffiti park in Long Island City--but until this Father's Day I'd never kept my promise to myself and visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens (34-56 107th Street, Corona, 718-478-5297). That was dumb. It's magnificent, and tourists--who tend to equate New York with Manhattan although the outer boroughs are more redolent of the city small-D democrats love--are strongly advised to make the effort.

Arriving at 3:45 in time to catch one of the hourly forty-minute tours, which are the only way visitors can view the interior, we had a few minutes to explore the tiny screening room, which featured a special exhibition about Pops and baseball that's up till August 25. There I learned that Pops was a Mets fan who wished someone would ask him to perform the national anthem at Shea Stadium a mile away, although he was an honored guest at a few games and could have attended more if he'd wanted. Pops also "admired" the Yankees, his manager Joe Glaser's team. There's a 1950 photo of him with first baseman Joe Collins and my hero Phil Rizzuto at a Chicago night spot.

Also in the screening room was a hand-written five-page screed praising his neighbors on 107th Street. When he wasn't on the road, Armstrong spent the last 28 years of his life in this house. It was chosen for him before he laid eyes on it by his fourth wife, Lucille. The block is now predominantly Hispanic in the vast North Queens barrio that follows Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard from Elmhurst all the way to the Flushing River. But when I attended Junior High School 16 half a mile away it was Italian with Puerto Rican and African-American admixtures, and to call it "middle-class," as the terrific guide did, is to pump its status slightly. Armstrong loved it and by all accounts was loved in return. Famously, he hung out with, played ball with, and bought ice cream for the local kids, as well as handing bills to the random needy. When there was a death nearby, Lucille would bake a turkey or casserole for the bereaved.

But though Armstrong fans know most of this stuff, to visit the house is different from reading about it. It's charming, funny, beautiful, touching, eloquent. By my look-see it's not the typical Queens 40-X-100 I grew up in but a 30-X-100, maybe even 25--quite cramped, its many amenities tucked into walls and up to the ceilings in the manner of a ship-shape houseboat. This is especially true in the kitchen, with its built-in blender that converts into other appliances and its paper towel and aluminum foil dispensers folding out near the sink. Originally a two-family, it was converted by sole designer Lucille into a one-family. The rear first-floor bedroom became a breakfast nook and an upstairs living room Louis's den, where he practiced, wrote, catalogued, listened to the radio, played along with the radio, home-taped himself, and entertained friends. At moments I was reminded of Monticello, which is also full of gadgets and smaller than you expect.

Armstrong never made the money he should have--Glaser kept most of it. But he could have afforded a far grander place, and that he chose not to says something telling about a genius who never aspired to rise above a common station except in the notes he played. Within the limits he laid out for himself, however, Armstrong didn't stint. Reading about the mirrored bathroom, gold-plated toilet fixtures, cheetah-print stair carpet, and aquamarine everything, you may fear the house is pretentious or embarrassing, but it's not at all, at least not to someone who grew up in Queens when Armstrong lived there. On the contrary, it's an object lesson in limited luxury. With its careful period authenticity--even the air conditioners are very 1970, although their guts have been replaced--the museum is a vivid reminder of how much more acquisitive, pretentious, and would-be hip wealth has become since the days of the affluent society.

The tour includes a few snatches of music from Armstrong's enormous and now finally digitized tape library, the most impressive a 1954 hotel-room recording of one verse of "Blueberry Hill." But more precious in a way is 30 seconds of dinner conversation from a much longer tape he made once. Nothing much is said--table banter about Brussels sprouts. But the commonness is what's great about it. Armstrong didn't make this recording because he was a great man whose every utterance should be preserved for history. He made it because he valued the most ordinary moments of a life he was grateful for--and by extension, everyone else's. His museum would make a great combo with the one the Fricks installed in their Fifth Avenue mansion.

MSN Music (Expert Witness), June 21, 2013