Documentary Review: Reconsidering a Cultural Colossus — “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”

The great New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis remembers the times his father Ellis suggested he take another look and listen to the jazz of “Pops,” Louis Armstrong. To Wynton and generations of African Americans who only knew Armstrong through is smiling public persona, not being political, never making waves despite the racism he faced from his first breath to his last, Armstrong was best at “Uncle Tomming,” playing the role that pleased white folks who thought he’d accepted his “place.”

But then his dad pushed recordings at his son and suggested trying to match the man’s trumpet and cornet solos. He couldn’t. And Marsalis the younger heard a bit of Armstrong’s vast archive of private conversation recordings, chats he’d have with friends, contemporaries and folks who’d stop by his house in Corona, Queens, New York. Here was the man the public didn’t hear as much of — defiant, salty, angry and frank, not an icon but a human being. Marsalis was turned around.

“I could not appreciate Louis Armstrong,” he admits in the new documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.” He does now.

With all that’s been said, reported and written about Louis Armstrong over the decades, it’s shocking how eye and ear-opening Sacha Jenkins’ new documentary about him is, what a revelation and re-assertion of the man and his place in the culture it turns out to be.

Jenkins — who has the civil unrest in LA doc “Burn Motherf—-r Burn,” and films on Rick James and Wu Tang clan in his credits — lets us hear from those candid tapes, and they humanize Armstrong and give this revolutionary figure in music his due as a Black man who was the very first to push through a lot of doors in segregated America, and bore the scars for it.

Anecdotes start with “This ofay motherf—-r” comes up to shake his hand and drops the N-word when he does, or that Hollywood “callboy” (production assistant who fetched talent to the set) disrespected him on the set and got an earful that everyone else heard too, blistering and sometimes hilarious exchanges he’d relate to his friends.

Jenkins reminds us that in a few interviews in his later years — with his friend Orson Welles, who was sitting in for David Frost on his chat show, or Dick Cavett or even Mike Douglas — Armstrong let loose on the abuse and insults and racism he faced throughout his career.

“Uncle Tom?” Not hardly.

Armstrong called out then-President Eisenhower for not doing something about the white unrest in protest against integration in 1950s Little Rock, another piece of Armstrong lore that Jenkins jogs our memory’s with.

And that’s just addressing the “Uncle Tomming” rep that “Satchmo” wore by smiling and being America’s greatest musical goodwill ambassador at a time when “I played 99 million hotels I couldn’t stay at.”

As to the music?

He “hit notes” nobody else could, took over and popularized jazz and made it America’s music and made it matter for decades.

“He totally changed the way people sing,” another e expert weighs in. “Jazz, pop, rock, soul,” country, you name it — the way he attacked a phrase, his role in the invention of scat singing.

Touring and singing duets with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, pretty much mentoring his white copycat, Bing Crosby, crowning his many featured Hollywood appearances by singing with and to Streisand for the finale of “Hello, Dolly,” and topping the damned charts with “What a Wonderful World” well into his last decade of life, there is literally no one who comes close to Armstrong’s impact on music and culture and America’s self-image.

Jenkins has the rapper Nas read from Armstrong’s autobiography, “Satchmo,” and makes ransom-note cut-out word collages into subtitles, doubling the impact of Armstrong’s words (Nas sounds nothing like Armstrong. No one does.).

And the filmmaker taps into decades of personal appearances, a filmed TV concert in black and white, a European tour, chats with Steve Allen and Carson and everybody else who wanted the good vibes that an Armstrong appearance brought their talk and variety show, decades after jazz had fallen from its status as America’s favorite.

He was hilarious, joking about racism, poking prejudices and getting big laughs in the same breath.

The Armstrong of the personal tapes renews our appreciation for Armstrong the TV raconteur. The man was candid at home. “Let’s talk about pot,” he says on a tape. And on TV’s “What’s My Line?” a whole string of riffs on “high” and “higher” went right over the host’s head. Or so it would seem.

Jenkins has made a film that does exactly what Ellis Marsalis wanted his brilliant son to recognize, that we haven’t “appreciated” Louis Armstrong, a multifaceted entertainer whose place within the culture and the racial politics of his day have never been given their due.

In this Golden Age of biographical musical documentaries, the filmmaker who is now working on an Ed Sullivan doc has taken a subject we thought we knew all we needed to know about, and all but re-introduced him to a new age. Well done.

Rating: R for language.

Cast: Louis Armstrong, Lil Armstrong, Lucille Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Leonard Feather, Jack Teagarden, Orson Welles, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Mike Douglass and David Frost.

Credits: Directed by Sacha Jenkins. An Apple TV+ release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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