Louis Armstrong Museum vs. the David Bowie Exhibit vs. Me
Over the last month I’ve visited two music-related museum exhibitions, the mega-hyped David Bowie“show” at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Louis Armstrong Museum in Corona, Queens, which has been open for decades and has been criminally ignored, at least by me.
I really enjoyed the Bowie exhibit, which was a slick, flashy, multimedia affair. But the visit to Satchmo’s space, which is much smaller, quieter, and low-tech, made me happier. Much happier, which was sort of a surprise, even though it really shouldn’t have been.
Both artists have made steady appearances in the soundtrack of my life. I can’t say I ever strongly identified with either artist. But I can say that I liked Bowie’s music up until Let’s Dance (which was produced by one of my heroes, Nile Rodgers, but was quite a disappointment). And I really dug the guitar work on some of his best songs. Still, I never connected with his dramatic, androgynous personas the way so many of his fans have.
As for Satchmo, I am guilty of taking him for granted.
He’s one of the most influential musicians in history. Dizzy Gillespie famously said, “No him, No me.” And you could probably extend Dizzy’s point all the way to sax-honking David Bowie, since Armstrong is credited with turning the instrumental solo into a centerpiece of jazz. So theoretically, no him, no electric guitar solos, either. You could also credit him with turning jazz into a form of pop music with his signature trumpet tone, his instantly identifiable voice, his tremendous scat-singing and a winning personality. Satchmo’s reach is incalculable.
Despite me thinking of Louis Armstrong as a great American hero, despite me loving him whenever I hear him — on his Hot Seven and Hot Five discs, solo or with Duke, or Ella, and basically with anyone ever everywhere — he has remained on the back-burner for me, a genius ignored.
So going to finally see his house — probably a mile or so away from CitiField, the Tennis Center and so many other Queens touchstones — felt great. Like a long overdue journey to the home of a prophet. My fellow pilgrims included four Virginians, two Germans and a woman from the Philippines. Not a single other New Yorker!
I left the Bowie show having learned one significant new thing: he was a pretty good painter, at least to my ignorant eye. I had no idea. It was another thing to be impressed with. As for his music, I learned pretty much nothing new. It was great hearing obscure tracks and old favorites. But you can do that at home on YouTube or Spotify. Still, it was fun. It was a nice way to spend two hours. I can totally see why people love it. I’m sure there were Bowie pilgrims at the Brooklyn Museum who regarded Bowie as a great hero — a life-changing, LGBTQ icon and the godfather of glam — and good for them.
I didn’t learn that much new about Satchmo at the Louis Armstrong Museum, either. But I felt him anew. I remembered his gifts. Being in his house felt a bit magical to me. Seeing the fruits of his labor. Glimpsing his life with his wife Lucille. Walking where he walked. Hearing that distinctive, joyous raspy voice coming through as I visited each room — the museum pipes in snippets from the 700 reel-to-reel tapes tech-loving Pops made, tapes that documented intimate conversations, jam sessions, and him just hanging around the house. Oohing at the Armstrongs’ awesome 70’s kitchen (pictures don’t do it justice).
But the most moving thing about the tour may have been seeing the front steps of his house. There are a
bunch of pictures of Armstrong on those same front steps playing trumpet with neighborhood kids. It’s great to see this superstar, this millionaire, this maestro, jamming with kids on the stoop, that hub of New York life. In some pictures just Louis has a trumpet. In others, kids are playing, too. And if you look those steps in this now-poor, working class neighborhood, and then you look at the pictures, even if you are the most cynical bastard in the world, someone used to scoffing at superstars, a miserable troll suspicious of the motives behind every photo, a jerk who doesn’t even get a little misty at the thought of David Bowie, and even if you’ve fortified yourself against Louis’ most famous showstopper of a tune — you know, the sentimental heartbreaker ballad that celebrates life, weighs youth against aging and smiles as it stares death in the eye — you can’t help but imagine the man and his sound, his genius and his generosity and the fun all those kids and Satchmo must have had, just being there in the moment, and think, if only for minute: What a wonderful world!