MAYBE it was the 50th anniversary of “Hello, Dolly” having knocked the Beatles off the top of the pop charts (May 9, 1964), but it occurred to me recently that with a little advance work, I could spend an entire day in New York with Louis Armstrong.
Yes, I know, that idea seems absurd at first. Even a devoted fan like me has to acknowledge that as much as his music lives on, Armstrong, the renowned jazz musician and beloved entertainer known worldwide as Satchmo, died on July 6, 1971.
But he died in his sleep in the king-size bed on the second floor of his modest brick-clad house on 107th Street in Corona, Queens. His widow, Lucille, eventually left the house to the city, and it has been preserved largely as it was in his last days — right down to a bathrobe and a pair of slippers — and is open to the public six days a week. That would be my first stop.
The same people who curate the Louis Armstrong House Museum oversee a collection of Armstrong papers, commercial and homemade recordings, artwork and memorabilia. The archive is housed in the library of Queens College in Flushing and is open to anyone who calls ahead to arrange an appointment. And if you bring your own mouthpiece, you can play one of five Armstrong trumpets kept there. I’ve studied the trumpet for nearly 50 years, with lackluster results. I do own a number of mouthpieces. So my afternoon was booked.
I planned to move into the evening with a cocktail at Birdland, the jazz club in the theater district, where every Wednesday for the last 16 years, the tuba-playing lawyer David Ostwald has led a band devoted to preserving the infectiously swinging musical style introduced by Armstrong’s pioneering small group recordings of the 1920s.
From there, it would be just a short walk to the Westside Theater on 43rd Street to catch the 8 p.m. performance of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” the one-man show written by the Armstrong biographer and The Wall Street Journal’s theater critic Terry Teachout. John Douglas Thompson portrays an ailing and somewhat embittered Armstrong reminiscing in his dressing room after what would be one of his last public performances. Mr. Thompson also does turns as Joe Glaser, the white manager who controlled Armstrong’s life and career (some say not always in his client’s best interests), and a grumpy Miles Davis, who criticized Armstrong for what he considered a racially demeaning stage persona.
Sometime during this day, I was hoping to grab a plate of red beans and rice, Satchmo’s favorite dish.
I woke up on my Louis Armstrong day and did what I do many mornings: played him performing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” There are more important recordings among the 100-odd Armstrong numbers on my smartphone: his “West End Blues,” with its eight-bar opening cadenza that plants a signpost to guide all jazz musicians to come, or the sublime duets with Ella Fitzgerald from the ’50s. But I’d introduced this song from Disney’s “Cinderella” into my routine during a gloomy winter spell, because it displays Armstrong’s ability to transcend trite material, infusing it with musical integrity and good humor. I smile every time I hear it. Sometimes I laugh out loud.
“Louis was a musical alchemist,” the director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Michael Cogswell, told me later that morning. “He could take the most stupid Tin Pan Alley ditty and turn it into high art.”
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Starting in the basement gift shop and gallery, Mr. Cogswell walked me through the house, which is remarkable mostly for its modesty. Except for an elaborately mirrored guest bathroom with gold-plated fixtures and a futuristic kitchen (considering when it was installed, in 1970) with lacquered custom cabinetry, Louis and Lucille lived in middle-class style. He made lots of money. The week I was visiting coincided with Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly” chart-topping milestone. He kept the gold record on the wall of his den.
“I don’t want to be any more than I am,” Armstrong wrote to a British biographer less than a year before he died. “What I don’t have, I don’t need it.”
He often toured 300 days a year, and when he landed at home, he spent much of his time in his wood-paneled second-floor den, making mixtapes on his two reel-to-reel recorders and decorating the tape boxes with elaborate and often humorous collages.
Those boxes and tapes are stored at Queens College, where I met the archivist Ricky Riccardi that afternoon. Mr. Riccardi, 33, was first captivated by Armstrong’s recording of “St. Louis Blues” at the age of 15. He has since learned so much about Satchmo that friends call him Rickipedia. His book about Armstrong’s later years, “What a Wonderful World,” was published in 2011.
“We have 750 tapes made by Louis that we’ve transferred to CDs,” Mr. Riccardi said. “He was creating this archive throughout his life. There’s almost nothing he does not talk about — racism, threatening to retire unless he got a special permit to smoke marijuana, him telling dirty jokes.”
Armstrong even taped himself drunkenly propositioning his wife for sex and the strange, funny and poignant conversation that followed, in which Lucille accuses him of thinking only about sex. Armstrong counters that he has another primary concern. “You know that horn comes first,” he tells his wife, “then you and Joe Glaser.” While listening to that recording and some others, I felt at times what Mr. Cogswell said he’d experienced when he first heard them: I got chills from their unvarnished intimacy.
I asked Mr. Riccardi if I could play one of Satchmo’s horns. “Sure,” he said. “Did you bring your mouthpiece?” I had forgotten my mouthpiece.
Good thing, because I probably would have tried to play that revolutionary opening to “West End Blues,” which is something I’ve practiced many, many times and never once played right. Not even close.
The Canadian trumpeter Bria Skonberg can almost nail it. These days, she is a regular member of the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band at Birdland on Wednesdays. The evening I visited, during a break between sets that included “Sleepy Time Down South” and “Swing That Music,” the bandleader, Mr. Ostwald, explained that his goal was more to salute Armstrong’s spirit than to imitate his sound.
“There are people occasionally who ask us to recreate Louis,” Mr. Ostwald said. “And I say, ‘No, we can’t.’ And sometimes, when I use a new trumpet player for the first time, he or she might ask, ‘Do I have to play like Louis?’ And I say: ‘What, are you kidding? Nobody can.’ ”
When I met Mr. Thompson on the sidewalk outside the Westside Theater after watching his performance as Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” he said much the same thing. He has played Satchmo nearly 200 times, and gives a skilled and subtle portrayal of a lifelong entertainment workhorse facing his inevitable decline with a cantankerous pride and a certain wounded dignity. Mr. Thompson never overtly imitates Armstrong, though he steps up to the precipice a few times. Those moments, he explained, help build a foundation for the very last scene when, standing stooped a bit and wearing a golf hat and windbreaker, the actor dons the kind of thick-framed black glasses Armstrong wore and, without saying a word, becomes the man.
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Mr. Thompson spent a number of days at the Armstrong house and archives preparing for the role, studying video and audiotapes. “Once you touch the guy, you’re changed,” he said. “The play gave me contact. Research gave me contact, and that contact gave me love. I love this guy.”
Me, too. It was late then, and I decided to head home, never having found red beans and rice, but full in other ways. Before I went to sleep, I played another song from Armstrong’s Disney recording, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I’d learned this day about a letter Satchmo wrote to the producer of the record telling him that the song was so beautiful that he was listening to his own rendition of it three or four times every night.
That was all the recommendation I needed.
Words and Music (and Furniture)
LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE MUSEUM 34-56 107th Street, Corona, Queens; open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday noon to 5; 718-478-8274, louisarmstronghouse.org.
ARMSTRONG ARCHIVES Rosenthal Library, Queens College, by appointment. Click on Museum Collections at louisarmstronghouse.org.
DAVID OSTWALD’S LOUIS ARMSTRONG ETERNITY BAND Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m., Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton; 212-581-3080, birdlandjazz.com.
‘SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF’ Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd Street, Clinton; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com.
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