On the Sunny Side of the Street
Just mention the name Louis Armstrong, or “Satchmo” and every one knows exactly who the man is. That’s because this trumpeter, composer and singer is the most influential figure in jazz music, having come to prominence in the 1920s. His daring trumpet style and unique vocals changed the concept of popular singing in American popular music, which had a lasting effect on all singers who came after him, including Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
While much can be recited about Armstrong, the musician, not much is known about Armstrong, the civil rights activist. As an entertainer, he had never considered his race to be a detriment to his career, having set a number of African-American “firsts.” In 1936, he became the first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music. That same year, he became the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with a role in Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby. And, in 1937 he became the first African-American entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show when he temporarily took over Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Show.
Ironically, it was the Black community who turned against him when the struggle for civil rights began. To many young jazz fans at the time, Armstrong’s ever-smiling demeanor, coupled with his refusal to publicly comment on political issues, seemed like he was out of touch with the situation. However, their perception of the man changed slightly when, in 1957, Armstrong made an angry statement, discrediting President Eisenhower for his handling of the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” Armstrong’s words made front-page news around the world. While some fans renewed their faith in him, not a single jazz musician who had previously criticized him did not forgive him. However, today this is seen by many as one of the bravest, most definitive moments of Armstrong’s life. A series of new biographies on Armstrong made his role as a civil rights pioneer abundantly clear and, subsequently, argued for an embrace of his entire career’s output, not just the revolutionary recordings from the 1920s.
In 1943, Louis and Lucille Armstrong moved to Corona, Queens, where they lived until their death. Today, the house is home to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The doors are being opened to the public during the month of February in celebration of Black History Month, with a “Hotter Than That – 90 Years of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five” theme. During the tour, visitors will receive a special collectible reproduction of one of Armstrong’s own scrapbook pages, hear audio of Armstrong reflecting on his music collection and learn more about his participation in the Civil Rights movement.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, Queens, New York
February 1-29, 2016
Tuesday – Friday 10:00am to 5:00pm
Saturday/Sunday 12:00 noon to 5:00pm