Aleteia

The Last Jazz Musician with a #1 Hit, and It Was Over the Beatles

CC Dick Decke
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Louis Armstrong’s music still enchants today

Before I moved to New York City, I’d read about the legendary Louis Armstrong’s house. After many successful years as a world-renowned jazz musician, he’d made it big and moved to… Queens. Not the Village, SoHo, or the Upper East Side, but Corona, Queens.

When you first move to any new place, but especially a city like New York, everything is foreign and mysterious. You step off the subway and immediately have no idea where you are. When I read about Armstrong’s house, Corona may as well have been Dar Es Salaam – it was so far out.

Then I moved to Queens. And I fell in love with it (a little like Louis), but somehow didn’t get to Louis’ place until last week. A quick look at the map revealed that he was a few blocks from the subway and just off the 7 train. My little brother was visiting, so we picked up some bagels and headed out.

The east African city of Dar Es Salaam is about 20+ hours away from NYC in terms of flying time. Corona is about 12 stops away from me. The train goes above ground eventually, giving you a view of graffiti, grocery stores, and street scenes. Both are worlds apart from my neighborhood in Astoria.

We got off the train and walked several blocks, passing a Catholic church (Our Lady of Sorrows) along the way – the same name of the church I went to as a kid. We went inside; the programs were in Spanish, and a liturgy (also in Spanish) was being celebrated. Spanish was the first language spoken on the streets and on the store signs.

After a few blocks, we arrived at Armstrong’s house – a small, red-brick building resting on a quiet street. He wrote about moving to the area, describing it as “mostly white,” saying he and his wife were one of two black families in a predominately Irish neighborhood. But it was working class that he wanted, and he felt at home when he was there (a true rarity, given that he toured on average 300 days out of the year).

There’s a small stoop, and the tour guide leads you up the stairs and instructs you – kindly – not to step off of the path lined by carpets. The house is preserved as Louis’s wife, Lucille, left it when she died in 1983.

Louis Armstrong recorded everything – music, of course, but also conversations from the banal to the more profound. Additionally, he was a prolific writer who responded to all fan mail sent to him and wrote two autobiographies. You can hear some of these recordings during the tour.

“We gotta listen to all kinda music… can’t be partial to one kinda music.” Louis replied to a question about the Beatles and the value of rock-and-roll. A few years, later he had his biggest hit with “Hello, Dolly!” which dislodged (you guessed it) the Beatles from the #1 spot on the charts. (Louis is the last jazz musician to have a #1 hit.)

Louis’ #1 hit from 1964:

Throughout the recordings – some of which include arguments with Lucille, his fourth wife and a dancer at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem – you hear in his voice what can only be described as the sound of the enjoyment of simply being alive. (Even if that voice is enjoying getting a rise out of his wife!)

Louis mentions that he thinks of his neighborhood when he sings “What A Wonderful World.” As you look out his window, it’s easy to see the neighborhood and his house – filled with kids as they both were – reflected in his version of the song.

Much can be said and has been said about Louis Armstrong and his music. The best thing to do is just listen; notice the first few notes of this song:

“Learnin’ the Blues”

Ella might sing first, but Louis turns an ordinary song into something truly irresistible.

Another two of my favorite recordings are “Blueberry Hill” and “Can’t We Be Friends?” with Ella Fitzgerald.

Ken Burns’s documentary, “Jazz,” salutes Louis as history’s finest jazz musician. And while it would be hard to disagree on the basis of the man’s skills alone, a visit to his house (which his wife initially wanted to trade in for something grander) gives you an insight into a man with a deep and tender love for music, but also for the people listening to it.

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