This summer, when I went to the United States for a conference, I was lucky enough to stop in New York for a few days and do one of the things I always wanted to do, which was to go to Louis Armstrong's house. Louis was one of the greatest guys in the history of jazz. I think if you polled all the jazz connoisseurs, the vast majority would put him in their top 5. And although he won dozens of awards, made dozens of records and appeared in many films, and although his friends were all the stars of the moment, Louis was a humble, pleasant man who never wanted to leave his modest home. Today this house is a small museum dedicated to him. It is located in the Corona section of Queens, next to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the final scene of Men in Black was filmed, with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones shooting at the giant globe in the middle of the park. Not far away is the Louis Armstrong Stadium, dedicated to our hero, and where the US Open tennis championships are held every year.
The museum is now accessed through the garage, where objects that belonged to Louis are displayed; some were in the cupboards when the curators arrived, others were donated by collectors. Up a narrow flight of stairs we reached the first floor of the historic house. It was a unique experience for me. Everything was just as it had been when Louis Armstrong was alive. On the bathroom shelf was his half-full bottle of cologne, the vacuum cleaner was in the cupboard and his notes were still scattered on the office table - it was as if one of the occupants was going to emerge from somewhere at any moment!
I took the tour with five other people and a guide took us around, telling us anecdotes and routines of the couple. We visited the kitchen where Lucille used to cook Louis his favourite dish: rice and beans (the poor thing was forced to learn to make it exactly the way his mother cooked it). The cupboards are painted a deep turquoise, apparently the same colour as Lucille's Cadillac. We saw the living room where they had dinner parties with their friends (the guest list would be the envy of any royal palace) and went upstairs to the bedroom where the couple slept. On entering, I had the same feeling I had as a child when I walked into my grandparents' bedroom. There was a tiny television in the back, an antique wardrobe and a copy of Dalí's Christ of St John of the Cross on the wall. There was also the bed in which Louis died. Then we went into his studio, which was dominated by a desk with a tape player behind it. On one wall was a portrait of him painted by a certain "Benedetto" (Tony Bennett himself!) and, if you pressed a button, through a small loudspeaker in the ceiling you could hear the painter explaining his relationship with Louis and why he gave him the painting. People who knew Louis work as volunteers at the museum, including one whose father had been the one to fix things in the house and another whose mother helped Lucille with the shopping when Louis died.
At the end of the visit, in the thirty-something heat, I was able to sit down on the steps of the house to rest in the shade. There, the children of the neighbourhood were waiting for Louis to return from his tours so that he could play the trumpet with them. When the lyrics to What a wonderful world were presented to him in 1967, Louis agreed to perform them because they reminded him of those gatherings. In an interview he said: "There are so many things in 'Wonderful World' that take me back to my neighbourhood, Corona, in New York. Lucille and I have lived there since we were married. And everyone there is like one big family. I've seen three generations grow up. And everybody, with their kids, their grandkids, they all come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille (I didn't say it, but Satchmo was Louis' nickname). So when I sing, 'I hear the babies cry/ I watch them grow/ they'll learn much more/ than I'll ever know', I can see the faces of all those children. And I have pictures of them when they were five, six and seven. So when they offered me 'Wonderful World', I accepted immediately".
Listening to the song now, the way Louis sings makes a lot more sense.
I loved the visit. I felt as if Louis himself had invited me into his home. And in his hospitality I saw that everything they say about Louis Armstrong is true, and I thought we need more people like him.