“We have to have a home,” said Lucille Armstrong just after marrying her new husband, world famous trumpeter Louis, whom she had met while working as a Cotton Club dancer.
Lucille’s mother lived on 107th Street in the Corona section of Queens, where a house was for sale next door in 1943.
Arriving by taxi in 1943 at the 107th Street location, Armstrong felt the house was beyond his means and that he was at the wrong address, argues with the driver. Lucille, upon hearing the ruckus, stepped and said “Louis, this is your home.”
Nestled in a working-class community, fond “Satchmo” memories bring many to tour the house turned museum, one of several iconic sites worth visiting in New York City that preserve the heritage of some African-American influences on music.
In public Armstrong appeared impeccable, and in subtle ways so is his home. In the front room are various mementos commemorating his musical missions to Africa, Australia, Germany and Spain, the most prominent being a blue Sevres received from France’s president in 1949.
Walking through the dining room, visitors hear dinner being served on an audio recording, with Louis and Lucille dining alone, and dogs Trumpet and Trinket making noise in the background. Armstrong favored an elegant bathroom, where using gold plated fixtures he would perfect his appearance. The kitchen features a stove with six burners, custom made by Crown, and bears a plaque with the engraved words “For Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong.”
Lying on Lucille’s bed is her negligee, with a table alongside displaying her purse and gloves. Her Bible is placed on a sitting room table, and in her closet are five dresses, with a drawer for hats, and another for scarves. Here also are Armstrong’s original cologne and white, pressed handkerchiefs, as daily he would go through a dozen, indicative of the intensity of his playing.
The den, because it was Louis’ room, is considered the house’s most important. An audio recording plays with Louis speaking of his tapes, many of which are of shows that he would have sent to him. He refers to the Beatles, who after occupying Billboard’s top spot for 14 weeks were replaced by Armstrong’s hit, “Hello Dolly” on May 9, 1964. Also heard playing is “Blueberry Hill.”
In his later years, battling ill health, Armstrong was advised to quit playing. To that he pronounced “I’d rather die on stage than quit playing.” Nonethless there were lulls in his performing, and many later day shows found him only singing. He died in his Corona home on July 6, 1971.
Harlem’s Apollo Theater also attracts world travelers, but unlike the Armstrong house, they come at all hours, often for impromptu, unguided pop-ins for picture taking. And if the timing and temperament of the guard on hand is right – to strut across its stage.
The theater opened in 1914 as the Hurtig and Seamen’s New Burlesque theater. But whether patron or performer, in 1914 black Americans were denied entry to what would become a quintessential symbol of excellence not only in African-American entertainment, but entertainment as a whole. Artists including James Brown, Sarah Vaughn, the Supremes and Al Green have graced the Apollo platform, as have Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
The theater reopened in 1934 as the 125th Street Apollo Theater as new management geared marketing toward Harlem’s African-Americans. The inaugural show featured the Benny Carter Orchestra, singers Aida Ward, Mabel Scott, and 16 showgirl dancers, performing before a shocked audience.
A staple for these artists was the Harlem Amateur Hour, beginning at the Lafayette Hotel, conceived by actor and producer Ralph Cooper in 1933, who moved the show to the Apollo in 1934. The renamed Amateur Night in Harlem was broadcast live on WMCA, eventually becoming Amateur Night at the Apollo. The Wednesday night tradition carries on, and is said to have served as the model for “Star Search” and “American Idol.” Notable amateur hour winners have included Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darren, and Jamie Foxx.
The Apollo endured through several ownership changes in the 1970s and ’80s, and after receiving city and state landmark status, today the neo-classically designed house is operated by the Apollo Theater Foundation.
“People come just to see it. And some want to learn its history,” said Apollo Ambassador and Tour Director Billy Mitchell.
After being told that “black people have no history, no heroes, and no great moments,” Arturo A. Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African descent set out to correct the oversight. His initiative began the seedling for what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a New York Public Library research unit, drawing scholars and students to sift through more than 10 million items dedicated to the examination of African people.
The Schomburg Center is a library, yet with its contemporary and historic exhibitions, a 340-seat Langston Hughes Auditorium, it facilitates performances, education and conversation about the black experience.
Out of its stacks, the Schomburg comes alive, bringing to audiences artists like Maurice Hines, a featured performer in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Cotton Club.”
“People feel a very personal, intimate connection to the Apollo,” Hines told a Schomburg Center gathering, and that he felt he was “called home to direct and choreograph” Apollo Club Harlem, an Apollo production of season’s past, designed to re-create a night in the life of Harlem’s Cotton Club.
The center also features Between the Lines, a series in which contemporary fiction and nonfiction authors meet the reader. Visually Speaking looks at work by prominent black photographers who have documented black culture. Theater Talks explore with creators and cast, the creative process of current Broadway and off-Broadway productions, vis-a vis the black experience.
The 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theater, also known as “The Harlem Library Little Theater” commemorates black life in theater, and Digging Up the Past: A History of the Schomburg Center, running through May 31, 2016 marks the Schomburg Center’s 90th Anniversary.