SATCHMO’S HOUSE: The Louis Armstrong House Museum includes a 75-capacity performance space and two recurring music programs. (Bowery Image Group/ Andrew Kelly)

State-of-the-art, 14,000-square-foot Visitor Center opened on July 6, 2023

What a wonderful award: the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York, was one of five U.S. museums to win the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) National Medal, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries.

The medal is presented to museums and libraries that are having a significant impact in their communities. Since 1994, 212 institutions that demonstrate innovative approaches to public service have received the honor.

The Louis Armstrong Museum opened for public tours in 2003, but the catalyst for the award was the opening of the state-of-the-art, 14,000-square-foot Visitor Center, which opened on July 6, 2023.

Designed by Caples Jefferson Architects, the Center includes a 75-capacity performance space modeled after New York City’s classic jazz rooms. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation donated the Armstrong Archives in the 1980s and provided funds to purchase the lot for the $26 million Center across the street from the original Armstrong home.

The Center “has allowed us to exponentially expand our programming,” said Regina Bain, executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Center, who will accept the IMLS medal in July in Washington, D.C. “It’s doubled our visitorship and part of that has been the concerts.”

Since opening, the Jazz Room has provided the platform to launch two programs: the museum’s concert series, “Pops is Tops” and “Armstrong Now,” a residency that has provided established artists like Esperanza Spalding as well as emerging artists a stage to create new work inspired by the 60,000-piece archives, the largest jazz musician archive in the world including audio recordings and Armstrong’s trumpets.

“It’s been really good to bring world class musicians to Queens, but it’s also bringing Queens’ musicians to a world class space,” said Bain, a Brooklyn-based educator and artist who describes the space as “joyous, intimate and beautiful.”

Professional trumpet players who visit are often given access to Satchmo’s private collection of instruments.

“Whenever a trumpeter comes to play in the space, and we bring out the Louis Armstrong trumpets for them to hold and play, there is a feeling of reverence and respect,” Bain said. “All of the musicians, but especially to the trumpet players, this is their home.”

Regina Bain. (Vanie Poyey)

Armstrong’s impact as the first Black popular music icon is felt throughout the Center with an exhibit curated by Kennedy Center artistic director of jazz, pianist and composer Jason Moran. Among his numerous contributions to popular music, Armstrong was the first Black American to star in a Hollywood movie, “Pennies from Heaven,” and was the first jazz musician to write an autobiography “Swing That Music,” both released in 1936.

The Center is nurturing the next generation of horn players providing trumpet lessons for local school children ages 8 to 14. The program was made possible by a donation of musical instruments from Ken Karnofsky, a descendant of the same family that helped Armstrong buy his first trumpet.

“We have young people blowing their hearts out,” enthused Bain.

A native of New Orleans, Armstrong lived in the house at 34-56 107th Street, Corona, Queens. with his fourth wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971. The museum just received a $100,000 IMLS grant for the Corona Collection, an oral history of remembrances from people in the neighborhood who knew Armstrong, who was beloved for buying neighborhood kids ice cream on July 4.

“We have people who come back to the Museum all the time who used to live in the community and they knew Louis Armstrong,” Bain explained. “They were little kids, they would sit on the steps or they would visit, and they have all of these stories. We are recording those stories and creating an oral history that we can put into the archive.”

The Armstong home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Visitors have included Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Charlie Watts, Ken Burns, Jon Batiste, Ron Howard, Bette Midler and many more.

“It’s about the community,” offered Bain. “You are getting to come to a space where people all have a love of Louis Armstong and what he means – he was a founding figure of jazz.”