Louis Armstrong’s House.

Louis Armstrong in front of his house.

Louis Armstrong in front of his house.

Me on those self-same steps.

Me on those self-same steps.

In New York about a week ago, we toured the Borough of Queens (led by our intrepid guides, and friends, Neill and Donna), and a highlight was our visit to Louis Armstrong’s house. A modest single-family home in a neighborhood of such, it has been available to tour since 2003. You’ll find it in the section called Corona (where Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz musicians, also lived), at 34-56 107th Street. Armstrong lived there with his wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971.

I have toured the homes of the great and the near-great (including the Hyde Park residences of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, separately, Eleanor Roosevelt), but never before have I been in a house in which one could feel the presence of the former occupant as vividly as one can feel Armstrong’s in this one.

One reason is that Armstrong was fascinated with the tape recorder, and took many opportunities to record mundane and not-so-mundane events in his house. These recordings have been archived, and when you go through the house, you get to hear recordings that were made in the very rooms you’re in. Stand in the dining room, and the young neighborhood lad leading the tour flicks a switch, and you are hearing Louis and Lucille have a dinnertime conversation of no particular consequence. Ah, but stand in Louis’ study, and the flick of the switch plays for you an a cappella vocal recording he made in that very study, singing “Blueberry Hill.” It is a wonderful performance—and one that only those who tour the house will ever get to hear. His having made that private recording in the very room in which you stand makes you feel his spirit.

Why did he make that recording? It certainly wasn’t a rehearsal. He’d had a hit record with the song already. I guess he was just playing with his new toy, the tape recorder. But it is a fine, fully-committed performance of “Blueberry Hill,” maybe the finest you will ever hear, ending with the trademark-Satchmo scatting.

You should hear it.

Correction: Scott Merrell of the Songbirds List points out that the Louis Armstrong House is not the only place to hear the a cappella “Blueberry Hill” recording Louis made on the Tandberg tape recorder built into the wall of his study. (As a tangent, I noticed, for you hi-fi buffs out there, that there are two Tandberg tape decks built into that wall, side by side, but one is a playback-only deck.) The following press release came out this year from Queens College, City University of New York:

CORONA, NY, July 31, 2008—Never-before-released recordings of the renowned Louis Armstrong, including legendary radio broadcasts and excerpts from Armstrong’s home-recorded tapes, are now available on a two-CD set from Jazz Heritage Society.

Disc One features the finest performances from a historic series of radio broadcasts. From April to May 1937, Louis Armstrong was the guest host of Rudy Vallee’s Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour, one of the most popular shows on radio. Armstrong was the first African-American to host a national network variety show—one of his many “firsts.”

In 1987, four years after Lucille Armstrong’s passing, David Gold, Executor of the Armstrong Estate and President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, selected Queens College to be the repository of Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s vast collection of memorabilia. Discovered in the archives were 18 fragile acetate discs of the legendary 1937 Fleishmann’s Yeast broadcasts. The recordings have now been meticulously remastered by Doug Pomeroy, a notable audio engineer who specializes in historic jazz recordings.

Disc Two provides insight into Louis Armstrong’s private moments. Carefully stored by Lucille Armstrong in Satchmo’s den were 650 reels of home-recorded tape. One of Louis Armstrong’s favorite hobbies was recording into his Tandberg tape deck—he would simply push the “record” button, visiting with fans and friends, at home or backstage, or while practicing his trumpet. Excerpts from Louis Armstrong home-recorded tapes on the CD include Pops singing and playing “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Blueberry Hill” a cappella.

Louis also reminisces about Bix Beiderbecke and Big Sid Catlett. Louis describes in great detail the early decades of his career and—of immense delight for jazz enthusiasts—plays trumpet along with a 78 RPM recording of “Tears” (a disc he made in 1923 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band).

The two-CD set—conceived of and authorized by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation—comprises more than one hour of Armstrong’s performance with his big band, more than one hour of excerpts from Armstrong’s home-recorded tapes, illuminating notes by Dan Morgenstern (an NEA Jazz Master who has received seven Grammy Awards for liner notes and two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for best writing on jazz), and rare photos from the collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

This set, released by Jazz Heritage Society, is currently available on CD exclusively via retail at www.JazzStore.com, and via membership in the Jazz Heritage Society at www.jazzheritage.org . Visitors to the Louis Armstrong House Museum can purchase the CD at the Museum’s shop.

On August 12, this unique recording will be available digitally at iTunes, and on August 19 all digital downloading sites worldwide will be authorized to sell this title. (Note: many international sites will determine their own release date.)

For review copies, please contact Greg Barbero at greg.barbero@musicalheritage.org.

For a preview of this release, visit: www.jazzstore.com/stash/louis-armstrong/index.php

Incidentally, for those who want to reach the Louis Armstrong House by train from Manhattan, satchmo.net provides these directions:

Take the 7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza. Walk north on 103rd Street. After two blocks, turn right onto 37th Avenue. Walk four short blocks, and then turn left onto 107th Street. The Louis Armstrong House is on the left, 1/2 block north of 37th Avenue. The exact address is 34-56 107th Street.

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