“Pass the Brussels sprouts,” rasps an instantly recognisable voice. It is gruff yet warm, a sort of honeyed cheesegrater familiar from 78s and cylinders, CDs and film soundtracks. It’s ol’ Satchel Mouth himself, Louis Armstrong, the revolutionary jazzman – who, of course, died in 1971. But here at his former home in Corona, in the New York Borough of Queens, his spirit lives on, requesting green vegetables and making table talk to the general delight of visitors.

Corona is, it is fair to assert, not the most upmarket of districts. The Louis Armstrong House Museum is an ordinary suburban house in the midst of what an estate agent might optimistically term “a vibrant community”. Why here? “For somebody of Louis’s celebrity to live in such a modest house is remarkable,” says the museum’s director, Michael Cogswell. Armstrong was a millionaire – arguably the first black superstar – so surely he could have lived anywhere he chose? He could, perhaps, have made his home in his beloved New Orleans, or in Hollywood (where in his later years he carved out a second career as an avuncular elder statesman of showbiz), or in Harlem, at the heart of New York’s jazz scene. It was in Harlem that Armstrong met his wife, Lucille, a dancer at the celebrated Cotton Club in the late 1930s. It was she who picked out – and, indeed, bought – the house while her husband was on tour with his band. She sent him a note with the address and invited him to drop in when he had finished touring. “What the hell do I care about living in a fashionable neighbourhood?” Louis said in 1964. “Ain’t nobody cutting off the lights and gas here ’cause we didn’t pay the bills. The frigidaire is full of food. What more do we need?”

Ah yes, the frigidaire. This, rather than the trappings of stardom, was what mattered to Satch (although, it must be admitted, his trumpets were plated with gold). He loved his food almost as much as he loved his music. And as song titles such as “All that Meat and No Potatoes”, “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Cheesecake” indicate, his taste was for solid, unpretentious fare – he was a man who would always choose an egg sandwich over a filet mignon. His favourite meal was, without a doubt, red beans and rice, a Creole dish traditionally eaten every Monday in New Orleans. Such was his love for this delicacy that he often signed his letters “Red-beans-and-ricely yours, Louis Armstrong”. Satchmo’s own recipe, preserved among his papers, suggests stewing half a pound of salt pork with a pound of kidney beans for some six hours, adding onions, peppers and tomatoes along the way. Bizarrely, the serving suggestion also includes a dose of Bisma-Rex and Swiss Kriss 20 minutes later. (The latter, a brand of herbal laxative, was something of an obsession. Armstrong was an ardent advocate of Swiss Kriss as a method of weight control, recommending it via specially printed cards bearing the legend “Lose weight the Satchmo way”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he went so far as to hand them out to members of the royal family at a formal dinner.)

With his penchant for down-home cooking and his unassuming manner, Louis was what Americans term a “regular guy”. The trade-off for this suburban domesticity, Cogswell says, was that Lucille was given free rein to keep up with the Joneses when it came to decoration – “she turned this very ordinary, middle-class house in Queens into a showpiece for all the latest trends.” Collaborating with the Manhattan-based decorator Morris Grossberg, Lucille covered all the walls with patterned papers, rather than paint, installed wall-to-wall carpeting, and created a rather psychedelic guest bedroom. “She would even call Morris in if she needed to change a lightbulb,” adds Cogswell. And because there were no Armstrong children to rethink their parents’ decorative preferences, no heirs to tear down the wallpaper and update the cupboards, the house – now owned by the city of New York and administered by Queens College – remains a perfectly preserved time capsule of mid-century domestic trends. The kitchen, our focus here, is every 1960s housewife’s dream, a symphony of the blues with fitted lacquered cabinets and mod cons in every corner. There is a state-of-the-art dishwasher (with a “party” setting on the controls, if crockery were to become stained with particularly stubborn Creole sauces), an automatic can-opener recessed into the wall, and a Nutone food processor actually set into the countertop.

Satchmo revelled in gadgetry. As well as these labour-saving appliances, he was also the proud owner of the latest reel-to-reel tape recorder, a portable model (in the sense that it could fit in the boot of his car) that allowed him to play his favourite 78s while he was on the road without lugging all that frangible Shellac around with him. When the Armstrong estate passed to public ownership upon Lucille’s death in 1983, Cogswell discovered an archive of some 700 tapes stored in boxes, many of which are hand-decorated with intricate collages that have taken on a sepiatone quality with the yellowing of the Sellotape. “We already knew about Louis Armstrong’s talent as a musician, a singer, a writer – he wrote two autobiographies – but this was a facet to his artistry that had not previously been made public,” says Cogswell. These tapes are the source of that aforementioned Brussels-sprouts remark, for alongside dubs of jazz tunes Satchmo made many home recordings of his ordinary life: playing with the dog, practising his trumpet, and eating dinner. Today extracts from these recordings are relayed over a hidden audio system, so that museum visitors can hear the Armstrongs enjoying the house. Even without this soundtrack, the house still feels inhabited; it is as if Louis and Lucille have just stepped out of the room, with a pot of red beans and rice bubbling away on the custom-made Crown cooker in preparation for another hearty meal. Pass the Brussels sprouts. 

First published in World of Interiors issue 344. Reproduced with permission.

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