If they’re good, music documentaries can serve as a time machine — an immersive experience that transports the viewer back to the magic of another era, where the soundtrack envelops you, and an artist who has left this mortal coil returns for 90 minutes or so to validate their superstar status — a mic drop straight from the heavens. If the films are very good, they leave even hardcore fans learning a thing or two about their beloved icons. And if the films are very, very good, they completely upend public perception and, by extension, rewrite an artist’s legacy in a meaningful way.
Over the weekend, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues was named Best Music Documentary at the IDA Documentary Awards, and it’s also a contender in the race for Oscar gold, but the impact of the Apple TV+ film may very well stretch beyond awards season. Never-before-heard audio tapes revealed in the film offer new insight into what motivated the pioneering jazz trumpeter and vocalist, and it could be a game-changer in the eyes of those whose criticism cut Armstrong the deepest: his fellow Black Americans.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901. By the mid-’20s, he was one of America’s most acclaimed bandleaders. By the ’50s, he was a global superstar — a triple-threat musician/singer/actor whose talent and charisma transcended age and ethnicity. After his innovative trumpet playing and distinctive burnished baritone made him a sensation in the clubs and on the airwaves, Hollywood came calling. With his million-dollar smile and ebullient personality, he was a natural scene-stealer in such classics as High Society (1956) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), playing the affable bandleader, of course.
Yet for much of his career, with the white-hot spotlight on him during the civil rights movement, Armstrong cultivated an image of political neutrality — a stance that helped him find work, but also alienated him from some who share his skin tone. Armstrong died in 1971, but that perception has remained, although he said he quietly contributed funds to the Civil Rights Movement behind the scenes. Sacha Jenkins, who was asked by Imagine Entertainment to direct Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, was one of those feeling the disconnect.
“Mr. Armstrong died a month before I was born,” Jenkins, 51, tells Deadline. “Hip-hop was the thing when I was coming up. I was entrenched in hip-hop, and a big part of hip-hop was sort of this Black consciousness, and this identity thing that we were all looking for in the 80s. And Armstrong — his mannerisms, the way he carried himself…it was contrary to what was happening on the street, or what was happening with the vestiges of civil rights or Black consciousness. It just didn’t line up for me.”
On paper, Jenkins seemed perfect for the role. A former music journalist, he had already helmed the documentaries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men and Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James. He also grew up in Queens, New York, where Armstrong lived for many decades. It wasn’t until Jenkins heard Armstrong’s self-recorded audio diaries — painstakingly catalogued in the trumpeter’s home study — that he became intrigued.
“Armstrong had these reel-to-reel tapes that he taped conversations with his friends and family, conversations with himself, where he spoke his mind,” says Jenkins. “You know him for ‘Hello, Dolly!’ or these huge pop songs, but when you hear him use strong language, it’s kind of shocking, but he’s a human being. This is what makes him real.”
Jenkins realized that Louis Armstrong was a product of his environment, no different from Wu-Tang Clan or Rick James.
“Being born in New Orleans in 1901, that’s just a few paces away from slavery, and I’m assuming not much had changed,” Jenkins explains.
As a musician who toured for his livelihood, Armstrong headlined a lot of segregated venues. Sometimes, he’d be asked to enter through the back door. Other times, he’d be invited to play hotels where he wasn’t welcome to stay as a guest. Over the years, Armstrong learned to demand better treatment through his written contracts.
“He’s getting booked into these white hotels, or these fancy venues that typically do not cater to folks of color. So he’s saying, ‘Okay, you guys like Satchmo? That’s cool. All right. We can maybe do business, but if I can’t stay here, I can’t play here,’” says Jenkins. “That in and of itself is a civil rights action.”
In Black & Blues, Jenkins chronicles a rare instance where Armstrong’s public comments matched his private opinions. In 1957, he lashed out at President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his timid response when the governor of Arkansas prevented nine Black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School. “Ike and the government could go to hell,” he fumed to a reporter, making headlines from coast to coast. The next morning, troops were in Arkansas ensuring the safety of the nine students in a victory for desegregation.
Was Armstrong a reluctant activist? Jenkins thinks the answer is complicated.
“At that time, since he was the most famous person in the world, he might as well have been the spokesperson for all Blacks — even though he wasn’t,” says Jenkins. “But he didn’t wake up saying to himself that’s what he wanted to do. He woke up saying, ‘I want to play my instrument.’ I can’t imagine the pressure of surviving all that he did, to become the artist he became, and to have the fame and acclaim that he did, and then battle people who look like him who felt like he wasn’t doing enough. I mean, that must have been a horrible feeling.”
For the film, Jenkins had access to letters written by Armstrong, and asked his friend Nas, the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist, to read them as voice over.
“He and I essentially grew up in the same neighborhood (in Queens), and have many friends in common. Went to the same school. When I told him that I was doing this film, he said to me, ‘Do you know that “Wonderful World” is my favorite song?,’” Jenkins recalls. “To me, where I grew up, Nas was our Louis Armstrong. He was that guy who made it out, who had that global impact.”
Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is the first documentary about the musician by a Black filmmaker. Jenkins believes it’s a perspective that’s needed in order to discuss race and racism in a direct and authentic manner. To his point, in the movie, a pair of well-known entertainers separately articulate how they were wrong to judge Armstrong as someone who pandered to white America: jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the late actor-director Ossie Davis. Both share their poignant personal epiphanies.
“I don’t necessarily know that a white person is qualified to have that conversation, nor am I interested in a white person having that conversation,” says Jenkins.
Yet Louis Armstrong’s story is one that touches all Americans.
“Armstrong is not just a Black American. He’s an American. He’s a great American who, regardless of how America treated him, loved his country. He still tells you that when he plays the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ he takes great pride in playing it. It makes him feel like somebody,” the director explains. “The film is for everyone, but I think there are specific conversations in the film that are specifically for Black people.”
More than half a century has passed since Louis Armstrong took his last breath. By most accounts, his legacy as a musician and entertainer is beyond reproach, but his motives as a man and sometime activist are perhaps now open for reinterpretation.
“Music and art is subjective, but someone articulating how they feel about their own life — which Armstrong does [in the letters and audio tapes] — you can’t really deny that,” says Jenkins. “At the end of the film, he says, ‘Okay, this was my life. I don’t regret anything.’ He signs off. He signs off from Earth.”
One can only surmise that Armstrong knew what he was doing when he recorded hours and hours of his own conversations, where he did not mince words about his life experiences, despite how he may have framed it in public. And since these dozens of reel-to-reel tapes were so well-preserved and catalogued, Jenkins believes he always intended for them to be used in finally telling his own story.
“There’s a scene at the end of the film where we play the last record he ever played — Ella Fitzgerald — on the actual turntable that he played it on,” Jenkins recounts. “When we were at his house, we couldn’t get the turntable to work. Do you know that eventually, the turntable started to work, and no one could figure out how, since we couldn’t find it plugged into anything? So I will say the guy has a very strong presence.”
Sounds like the bandleader leading the band, once again.
“He was the co-director on the film,” says Jenkins. “What do I think he would say about it? I think he would say, ‘People finally understand how I felt.’ Which is really gratifying.”