The music began at the notched mouthpiece, twisted past the dents and dings in the shepherd’s crook and emerging from the bell as best as a 12-year-old could play a cornet.
Which was probably better than most kids in the Colored Waifs Home Band, being that the kid’s name was Louis Armstrong.
That cornet, presumably the first one played by Armstrong, is suspended beneath glass in the Old U.S. Mint as it was 10 years ago, before Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the building, sending the Louisiana State Museum’s jazz collection into hiding.
Nearby is the last instrument on which Armstrong performed: the Selmer trumpet, its flawless brass surface reflecting not just stardom but music legend.
The two horns mark the beginning and end of Armstrong’s timeline, and some 70 artifacts in between examine the musician’s relationship with his hometown in the exhibit titled “Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans,” which opened Wednesday.
The exhibit’s opening was timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Satchmo SummerFest, giving festivalgoers — and visitors thereafter — a glimpse not only into Armstrong’s New Orleans history, but the latter part of his life in Queens, New York.
Many of the artifacts in this show — including Armstrong’s Selmer trumpet — are on loan from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, which collaborated with the Louisiana State Museum in curating this show.
And it all comes together to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armstrong’s first professional gig at Henry Ponce’s saloon in New Orleans in 1915.
The saloon is long gone, but the memories linger through Armstrong’s writings and recordings scattered throughout these two galleries.
Armstrong tells most of his own story here.
“He traveled with a typewriter,” museum historian Karen Trahan Leathem says. “Can you imagine what it would have been like traveling with that bulky typewriter? And when did he have time to write all of this?”
She walks through the galleries, pointing out reproductions of Armstrong’s personal papers, all of which are housed in the Armstrong House Museum’s archives.
His memoirs begin with handwritten papers, reminiscing about his boyhood and the Lithuanian-Jewish Karnofsky family that took him into their home and taught him about “singing from the heart.”
“A person’s writing says so much about them,” Leathem says. “And it says more when they write by hand. Look at where he marked things out and used different color ink in his editing. We have original artifacts in the show, but we’re using reproductions of things like his writing, because the originals are so fragile.”
Armstrong left New Orleans in 1925 for Chicago, to join fellow New Orleanian King Oliver’s band. He returned in 1931 to a more complicated relationship with his hometown.
Armstrong was a success by that time, but that didn’t matter to the racist radio announcer who refused to introduce him at the Suburban Gardens in Jefferson Parish.
“He tells this story in his writings, and he uses the word the radio announcer called him,” Leathem says, pointing to the word in Armstrong’s handwriting. “He finally couldn’t take it anymore, and he left for good in 1956.”
But not before starting a baseball team called the Black Pelicans in 1931, a counter to the all-white New Orleans Pelicans.
He also was named king of Mardi Gras’ Zulu Parade in 1949, a realization of a lifelong dream.
Both achievements are documented by photos and Armstrong’s writings.
The show also includes rare excerpts from his private tapes and video clips from television interviews. All visitors have to do is pick up a handset and listen.
Still, the show’s most prominent pieces are the two horns, both occupying the gallery with the original, hand-tinted photographs of Armstrong’s immediate family.
Fans automatically will recognize the photo of the musician as a boy standing next to his mother, Maryann Albert, and sister, Beatrice.
“But most people haven’t seen the photo of his father, William Armstrong,” Leathem says. “He kept these at his house in Queens.”
It’s also here where the story of the Colored Waifs Home comes into play. Armstrong was arrested and sentenced to the institution near City Park after shooting his stepfather’s pistol in the air at Perdido and Rampart streets on New Year’s Eve 1912.
Armstrong was only 12, but music instructor Peter Davis recognized his musical talent. He not only trained the self-taught Armstrong in music, but instilled discipline in the youngster.
And it all happened on the rickety shepherd’s crook cornet inside the glass case.
Manuella Jones, widow of the Waifs Home superintendent, donated the horn to the New Orleans Jazz Club Museum in 1962, the same collection that now belongs to the state museum.
“Armstrong came back to New Orleans again in 1965, and he identified the cornet by the grooves he’d cut in the mouthpiece,” Leathem says. “So, this was the horn he started out on.”