In 2022, the Louis Armstrong House Museum was awarded $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create Mapping Jazz and Hip-Hop in Queens, an interactive digital project that explores the history of jazz and hip-hop. The project will use a multi-platform digital experience including a museum exhibition and a web/mobile interactive to examine how Queens’ prolific jazz community significantly influenced the rise of hip-hop. The platforms will facilitate individual visitors’ experiences as they explore the neighborhoods that cultivated jazz and hip-hop for over a hundred years.
The project follows the massive digitization in 2018 of the museum’s entire archives supported by a grant from the Robert F. Smith and the Fund II Foundation. Smith, who is on the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s board of trustees, approached the museum in 2015 about creating a digital archive that would offer an online glimpse ino Louis Armstong’s daily life and continue Armstong’s mission to preserve African American history. The museum applied for a grant in 2016 through the Fund II Foundation and was awarded a total of $3 million. $2.7 million was allocated to digitization efforts and $300,000 supported the hiring of two full-time museum fellows from historically Black universities to help with digitization. The fellows worked alongside Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections and Sarah Rose, Manager of Research Collections.
“It was a huge process but now our entire collection is publicly accessible to anyone 24 hours a day, ” said Regina Bain, Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The museum’s collection is comprised of eleven different collections totaling more than 60,000 items, making it the largest archive of any jazz musician.
“The biggest collection is the Louis Armstrong Collection, which is comprised of all of the things that were in the house when Louis lived in the house including past recordings, and pictures - all of those things have been digitized,” said Bain.
The Louis Armstrong Collection also contains Louis and his wife Lucille’s personal collection of 1,600 recordings, 650 home-recorded reel-to-reel tapes, 86 scrapbooks, 5,000 photographs, 270 sets of band parts, 12 linear feet of papers, letters and manuscripts, 5 trumpets, 14 mouthpieces, and 120 awards and plaques. When Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, Lucille continued to live in the home and worked to ensure that it would become a National and New York City Historic Landmark, with the goal that the home and its archives would become a museum. When Lucille died in 1983, the home and its contents went to the City of New York which designated the City University of New York, Queens College to oversee the process. The archives became accessible to the public in the 1990s and the house opened as a museum in 2003.
“This grant really helped us through the pandemic because we had all of these digital assets and could build out digital storytelling through virtual exhibitions,” said Bain. “It really gave us a facility. We have archiving experience and now we have digital archiving experience. We have digital storytelling experience.”
Following the digitization of the archives, the museum began to think about how digital storytelling applies to one of the organization's core mission –sharing archival materials that document Armstrong’s life and legacy with the community.
“Community was important to Louis and Lucille Armstrong,” said Bain. “They lived in this community of Corona, Queens for thirty years and they loved their neighbors. They invited kids over to sit on the stoop and play the horns…watch TV and eat ice cream. What does it mean for us as an institution to live in those values, to live in that legacy, and care enough to be curious to share our resources with the community. One of the resources that we have is our archive and ability to archive.”
Armstrong is widely considered to be responsible for shaping jazz into the music it would become in the 1930s. “Louis Armstong was a jazz musician but he was also a pop musician. He was a Black cultural icon in many different genres,” said Bain. “Usually when we talk about the story of jazz in New York it’s focused on Harlem, but there’s a story about jazz and Queens that I think needs to be told.”
Digital and Community
The story about jazz and Queens began to be told through the Flushing Jazz Trail Map created by Ephemera Press and commissioned by Flushing Town Hall. The map shows places of interest and the homes of jazz legends including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong. “When I started at the Louis Armstrong House Museum two years ago, I saw this map on the wall at Flushing Town Hall and I was inspired,” said Bain. “I reached out to the Town Hall and the Kupferberg Center for the Arts and we started dreaming about what this could be.” The conversation between Bain, the Flushing Town Hall, and the Kupferberg Center for the Arts evolved into a conversation about hip-hop. “We started to think about familiar genealogical storytelling connections between jazz and hip-hop in Queens and wouldn’t that be an amazing story to tell.” Stories like hip-hop artist Nas whose father was a jazz cornetist in Queens. “We looked at Louis and Lucille’s story and values of community, looking at the resources and expertise that we have as an organization and putting them together into a new idea that celebrates Black music in the borough of Queens.”
The museum is working with its community, musicians, and academics to develop what this digital storytelling will look like. “Through this series of conversations where we’ve landed so far is that there is going to be a website, an app, and a physical installation throughout the borough of Queens.” The museum is working with jazz and hip-hop historians, artists, and practitioners to help document the oral history of jazz and hip-hop to include within an interactive digital map. “So many of these folks who have been really important have already been doing the work of historians, especially musician and historian TL Cross,” said Bain. Cross has been sharing his research on hip-hop on his Instagram feed with the “Cross in a Minute” series including a video which hip-hop artists have sampled piano from Aretha Franklin, one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop history. In addition to the Flushing Town Hall and Kupferberg Center for the Arts, other partners include Indiana University, Yale University, Duke University, Queens College, Trinity University, University of Bristol, New York University, and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
“We’re still in the discovery phase of this project…exploring the genealogy of connection, including neighborhoods, familial and friendship ties, as well as listening and sampling patterns,” said Bain. “We plan on applying for the next two phases of funding from the NEH for prototyping and production. But we will also need additional funding since the NEH only supports about 50% of the total project cost.”
The museum is in the process of creating materials to share with its donors and stakeholders that includes long-term goals and community impact including stories from older musicians in the borough. “We’re conducting these interviews now and creating videos that can be shared with the community and potential donors.” The next phase will include convening teams of digital experience creators to develop storylines and determine appropriate platform designs and strategies for interactive engagement. “There will also be a multimedia exhibit at the new visitor center where people can gather to discuss the days of jazz and hip-hop. It’ll include a live performance venue with flexible seating and spaces for workshops. We want to bring the community together to listen to music and have these discussions. 2023 marks our 20th year open to the public and we’re excited for what’s next.”
The museum also recently launched “Armstrong Now” an artist-in-residence program that contextualizes Louis Armstrong’s contributions within historical and 21st-century arrangements of Black making, thinking, and vitality. The residency provides emerging artists with a platform to create new work inspired by the collection. “Each artist receives a $10,000 stipend to research the archives and create new works,” said Bain.
“I think it’s critically important that we have multiple modalities for connecting with our communities and these digital modalities can act on their own,” said Bain. “There will be people who will never step in our museum physically, but they engage with the story of Louis Armstrong. They will engage with this story of jazz and hip-hop in Queens. They live across the country or the world and they may never make it to New York but they are able to engage with our mission and with our stories. That’s the legacy that we promote at the Louis Armstrong House Museum through these digital means. It’s important that we invest in engaging in this type of work as museums.”
Learn more about the Louis Armstrong House Museum: https://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/