July 6 marked 49 years since his passing, but he is remembered as a larger-than-life inspiration. He was a trumpeter, composer, singer and improviser, bandleader, comedian, actor, and civil rights pioneer.
He was full of charisma, entertaining millions ranging from royalty to children on the stoop of his home, yet remained humble through it all.
Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille Wilson lived at 34-56 107th Street. After being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, the home was designated a NYC Landmark in 1988, and today is preserved as The Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives.
Massachusetts resident Brian O’Conachtaigh was raised in Woodside and attended Queens College, which oversees Armstrong’s archives.
“I took a tour of his house and there was such a strong feeling of warmth,” he said. “I saw pictures of him on his stoop playing trumpet and getting a haircut in the local barbershop. It always blows my mind that he chose to live in a working-class neighborhood.”
Armstrong often bragged about his working-class neighborhood.
“And you take this neighborhood we live in,” he said in 1964. “We’re right out here with the rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats. We don’t need to move out in the suburbs to some big mansion with lots of servants and yardmen and things.”
Armstrong, the grandson of slaves, had a father who abandoned his family and a mother who became a prostitute, forcing him to live with his grandma. In 1907, he was adopted by the Karnofsky family.
Mrs. Karnofsky would sing him Russian lullabies, and they gave him money to purchase his first instrument, a Jewish custom.
He later incorporated Jewish melodies in songs like “Go Down Moses” and “St. James Infirmary,” and wrote a book on the family saying they taught him “how to live real life and determination.”
“Louis Armstrong’s story is the true American story,” said Ari Silverstein, a Forest Hills resident and a licensed tour guide with NYCJazzTour.com. “Born in poverty, he was an orphan at a young age but achieved greatness. His message was one of inclusiveness, and that anything is possible.”
Bill Boggs of BillBoggsTV on YouTube has interviewed everyone from Frank Sinatra to Burt Bacharach.
“In the late 1960s, when Louis was on ‘The Mike Douglas Show’ in Philadelphia, I was able to do a short audio interview,” he recalled. “He was a happy man with a great vibe and a huge ingratiating smile.
“It seems like I hear something new each time I hear even a familiar recording,” Boggs added. “More than any other performer, he helped shape jazz and American popular music and set the standard for musicians as global ambassadors who can break down barriers between nations.”
In 1970, Marvin Moskowitz of Bedminster, New Jersey, launched Cardiotronics, which sold medical equipment. The following year, he received an emergency call from Beth Israel Hospital, where a patient tried to remove the monitor from the wall and to come ASAP.
“I went into the room and it was Mr. Armstrong,” he said. “He looked up and said, ‘Hey kid, what’s up?’ I said, ‘Mr. Armstrong, I’m here to fix the machine.’”
Franca Lanci was a member of the first graduating class of Louis Armstrong Middle School in East Elmhurst in 1982.
“My school was exceptional, as was the man the school was honored for,” she said. “The school has another name, I.S. 227, but no one goes by that name. When asked where you graduated from, we proudly say ‘Louis Armstrong Middle School!’”
Former Forest Hills resident Sandy Ben remembers his impact through her students. “When I taught kindergarten, for Earth Day I introduced Louis Armstrong and ‘It's A Wonderful World,’” said former Forest Hills resident Sandy Ben. “Think it was the first time the children heard a voice like Louis Armstrong’s. It sort of stopped them in their tracks with their eyes wide open and smiles on their faces.”