It’s like the ghost of jazz past is visiting the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, N.Y. this Christmas.
The museum, located in the Corona home of Louis and Lucille Armstrong, has decked out the house just like it looked when the Armstrongs were alive. They’re even using Lucille’s ornaments that were found in an old box in the attic.
But even more haunting is the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong echoing through the house.
The museum is playing old, homemade reel-to-reel recordings that Louis made of himself when he was alive.
So when you enter the museum, you can hear Armstrong reciting “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or singing along to the radio playing Nat King Cole’s “All I Want For Christmas.”
Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House, says the recordings give visitors a sense that the Armstrongs have just stepped out for egg nog.
Louis Armstrong listening to Nat King Cole:
Louis and Lucille Armstrong talk about their Christmas traditions on the Michael Douglas talk show in 1970:
Louis Armstrong records ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1971, just months before his death:
An acetate recording of a demo of ‘Zat You Santa Claus,’ followed by Louis Armstrong’s finished version:
Ricky Riccardi on the sound of Louis practicing:
“His main way of practicing was to play along with the radio, and we have one tape where about six straight minutes go by and anything that pops on the radio, whether it’s Guy Lombardo, Auld Lang Syne, Blue Bells of Scotland, he just plays them all. Immediately, he improvises, he always plays in the right key. There’s no written documentation that he had perfect pitch but when you hear that stuff it’s very convincing evidence. He comes right in every time.”
Matt Glaser on Louis’ way of swinging on a melody:
“Not to get too existential on you, but there is this kind of life energy in swinging. If I was running for president, I would run under a platform of every American has to learn to sing Louis Armstrong solos. That would be like a Litmus test. If you wanted to gain citizenship to the United States, can you sing Louis Armstrong solos from ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’ and ‘Potato Head Blues’? And I actually believe that it’s valuable spiritually and existentially for everyone to immerse themselves in this music. It has – I’m not kidding, I really believe this – it has a value to human life that is tremendously deep and makes you incredibly happy on a cellular level.”
Ricky Riccardi on Louis’ first Christmas tree:
“This was something that goes way back, because you have to remember that Louis was born in pretty much the deepest poverty you could humanly imagine. And there weren’t many Christmas trees going on in his neighborhood, in the battlefield section of New Orleans. So, he meets Lucille. They get married in October 1942, they still hadn’t purchased the home in Corona yet, so their honeymoon was about six straight nights of one-nighters – a different city every night. And when it came to Christmastime, they’re in a hotel room and Louis is at the job, Lucille says, “You know what? I’m going to put up a Christmas tree in the hotel room. Let’s get a little festive atmosphere here.” And Louis comes back from the gig and he almost had tears in his eyes, Lucille said, and then he finally said, “You know? This is the first Christmas tree I’ve ever had.” And for days after, up to Christmas, even after Christmas, they brought the Christmas tree with them everywhere they go until it pretty much fell apart.”
Ricky Riccardi on Louis’ definition of success:
“I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories. In August of 1967 Louis did two weeks in Framingham, Massachusetts, and his good buddy Jack Bradley was there and Jack tells a story that they’re in Louis’ motel room, and this is not a suite. It’s a little rundown motel on the side of the road. And Louis tells Jack, “You know, Jack? I’ve really made it.” And Jack says, “Uh, what do you mean?” And Louis says, “Anytime I’m hungry, I could walk over to the refrigerator, get an egg, and make myself something to eat. I’ve really made it.” And Jack said he had tears in his eyes. And he told him, “You know, you should have filet mignon three times a day,” and Louis just brushed him off. That was the height of his success. By this point, he had “Hello Dolly”, 35 movies, TV every week, but the fact that he can make an egg sandwich anytime he wanted, that was it. He had really made it.”