50 years on, Armstrong’s last days in every detail 1

Countless luminaries wrote letters of condolence to Louis Armstrong’s widow, Lucille, after his death, ranging from A-list celebrities to New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Papers including the Daily News made his death a front-page story.

Until you’ve gotten lost in the countless pages that make up the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s “That’s My Home” collection of virtual exhibits, it’s hard to imagine how extensive they are.

Imagining the number of leaves on one of those “trees of green” Armstrong visualizes in his signature “What a Wonderful World” is one of the analogies that might spring to mind. That’s how endless the pages, links, images, documents, videos and sounds seem.

Recording sessions, letters, a virtual tour of the museum that Armstrong’s home in Corona became and more photos than anyone could ask for — they’re all accessible from the home base at virtualexhibits. louisarmstronghouse.org.

One section alone, dedicated to the time leading up and following the jazz legend’s death 50 years ago last July 6, is entitled simply “1971.”

As the date approached this summer, museum Director of Research Collections Ricky Riccardi told the Chronicle in an email, “I knew we had to commemorate it on the ‘That’s My Home’ site, but soon realized we had the opportunity to tell a longer, more dramatic story. I’m continually fascinated by Armstrong’s final years as doctors told him to stop playing the trumpet and to just retire but Louis only lived to perform and went back on the stage.”

In March 1971, Riccardi noted, Armstrong went ahead with a two-week engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria, against doctors’ advice. Eventually he had a heart attack and spent two months in the hospital. He took it easy for a while after that, mostly staying home and doing things like compiling his recordings going back to 1923 on reel-to-reel tapes. But he started warming up on his beloved trumpet again and inviting people over to his always-welcoming home. He celebrated his birthday on July 4, told his manager the next day that he was ready to play a gig again, went to bed ... and never got up.

“Everything I just mentioned is covered on the ‘That’s My Home’ site in incredible detail, taking eight individual installments to tell,” Riccardi said. “We shared his collages, all of the surviving photos, transcriptions of letters and interviews and much more. The reaction has been sensational as people felt that they were right along with him in those final weeks.”

Riccardi continued the painstaking posting beyond Armstrong’s death, including his funeral — with one article noting how a much more lively Black-style service in New Orleans was than the somber white-style one in Corona. “Satchmo’s Funeral ‘White and Dead’ in New York, But ‘Black, Alive and Swinging’ In New Orleans” read the headline in Jet magazine.

Regardless of color, “alive and swinging” is one way to describe all the material about Armstrong that can be found in “That’s My Home” — where even “1971” is just one of nine sections. And Riccardi isn’t even done posting. What a wonderful site.

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