Despite being on the job for just over a month, Kenyon Victor Adams already has a grand vision for the future of the museum, including bringing artists to see the archives and engaging local Latino communities.
The new $23 million facility on 107th Street in Corona will include a state-of-the-art exhibition gallery, a 68-seat jazz club and museum store. It will also be the new home of the Louis Armstrong Archives, which are currently housed at Queens College.
“I hope that we can construct a future for his legacy,” Adams said.
Adams, 40, grew up in the Orlando area, which he described as “very multicultural, but very segregated historically.” His family is from North Carolina and Georgia, but moved to Orlando, where his grandfather was a pillar in the community.
He spent his formative years singing gospel music in church. His family was part of a mass gospel choir in Florida, which is why music became such a big part of his life.
Because of his ability to sing, Adams later got into theater. At 16 years old, he performed at the Edinburgh Festival, an experience he described as “eye-opening.”
He was later recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation and received the Presidential Scholar in the Arts Award.
Adams attended Dr. Phillips High School, a visual and performing arts school just across the street from Universal Studios. He described it as a vigorous and serious environment, one that set him up for a life in the arts.
“I remember people thought Universal was building the sets for its theaters,” he said, “but it was actually the students.”
These experiences expanded his artistic purview. Not satisfied with one single discipline, Adams explored not just theater, but musical performance, songwriting and being a vocalist. “All of these felt native to me,” he said.
As a graduate student at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where he later became an artist-in-residence, and at the Yale Divinity School, Adams further expanded his interdisciplinary artwork and thinking. He was surrounded by a community of poets, painters, philosophers, social critics, black liberation thinkers and Afro-futurists.
While working as a musician and actor at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, he met artistic legends who challenged him to be better.
He learned from Willie Ruff, an accomplished jazz musician who specialized in the French horn and double bass.
“Willie Ruff really was a big influence in terms of how I imagine jazz histories,” Adams said. “Everytime I’m with him, I learn some new corner or story that is absolutely essential.”
Perhaps the most impactful encounters were with playwright August Wilson, who “knocked the course of my life by challenging me in a very devastating way.”
Although he only met Wilson twice in his life –– the second time at the opening of the play “Radio Golf” –– the playwright pushed him back into music and the blues.
“He challenged me to basically take my own Great Migration, if you will, out of my southern sensibilities and southern purity about how I was imagining black music,” Adams said. “I felt that the southeast is where all African-American music began, in a way, so the music there felt old to me, something I could trust.”
Instead, Wilson told Adams to take his “imaginative journeys” to the cities, to places like Chicago.
“He did this in a very stern way,” Adams said. “I still actually wince from it, but it was definitely loving. He obviously cared about my formation. And to take the time with someone that he could’ve ignored was beautiful.”
Taking up the challenge, Adams ended up in New York City for eight years, where he took part in the “artist hustle.” He played music as both a solo artist and a band leader, while working in theater to pay the bills.
He also briefly worked in film, collaborating with the director Lee Isaac Chung.
“Again, the interdisciplinary nature of film expanded my whole purview,” he said. “I started to become really much more interested in the visual than I had been.”
But in the end, Adams said he was drawn back to folk singing and music again. At the same time, the Orlando native was starting to think about role of art and theology in society. His grandfather was a minister, so Adams said he always had a “theological bent.”
“I tried to find every kind of community where I could have those conversations, every kind of artist, space, conference or book,” he said. “I was chasing it down.”
In 2014, that chase took him back to Connecticut at the Grace Farms Foundation. A project led by Sharon Prince, Grace Farms was, in equal parts, a park, architectural site, social justice proposal, convening space and art space.
It offered the type of interdisciplinary work that Adams was always interested in. As a consultant, he led the foundation’s arts initiative.
In 2018, Michael Cogswell, the longtime executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, stepped down. The vacancy presented the “opportunity of a lifetime” that Adams could not pass up. He accepted the job earlier this year.
Approaching his new role, Adams said he thought deeply about how to bring a towering figure of the 20th century into the 21st century. He said it required an “utterly contemporary approach.”
“People are just thinking a whole new way,” he said. “Technologies have changed ways of constructing. Knowledge has changed, memory has changed.”
When the education and performing arts center opens, Adams said, it will incorporate innovative technology and interactive exhibitions like touch-tables and voice interactions.
One of his top priorities will be making the museum and education center a neighborhood place, much like the house where Armstrong lived quietly all those years. He wants families and children to be drawn in, which isn’t always easy for a cultural center in a neighborhood where people are constantly working and moving.
Part of that engagement is making sure the growing Latino community is part of the experience as well. “You’re not going to come here and somehow not be engaging Latinx histories,” he said.
Adams’ other goal will be to invite great artists and innovators to see the archives for themselves. He noted that the country is the the midst of a renaissance for African-American art, literature, dance and more.
“This is an unprecedented time for black art,” he said. “And towering in the midst of it, fittingly, is the Louis Armstrong center.”
He imagines when then visitors interact with the archives, they will glean from it the long histories of Louis Armstrong and what his life represented.
“If you can just pick up one object, it’d be worthy of half a lifetime of reflection,” Adams said.