When you think of Louis Armstrong, what comes to mind? A trumpet player? The voice behind "What A Wonderful World?" Beloved musician from New Orleans? For many, that's as deep as their knowledge about the Father of Jazz goes.
But as Sacha Jenkins' newest documentary, Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues, demonstrates, there's so much more to know. The filmmaker, who previously directed and produced documentaries about Rick James and the Wu-Tang Clan, was approached to tackle Armstrong's legacy, but admitted at the time, even he wasn't familiar with the artist beyond the basics.
"I didn't really know much about Louis Armstrong. And then, when I did the research, I was like, 'This guy's like the coolest person,'" Jenkins tells A.frame. " He was a fine artist, wrote extremely well, he was funny, great style. I cannot name anyone in the modern era who has all of those talents. On top of that, he had been painted as someone who wasn't aware of what was happening in America, particularly with Black America. He was accused of not being with it by Black people in many cases. But you take a step back and you look at who he was and what was going on, and you realize, no. People got it way wrong! So, the opportunity to get it right, and I hope that we did, was intoxicating."
The film does right by Armstrong by allowing him to tell his story in his own voice. The late musician was a dedicated journal keeper, and often recorded diaries on early tape recorders, in addition to keeping press clippings and photos in detailed scrapbooks. Jenkins was able to access those materials and effectively let Armstrong speak for himself.
"I believe Armstrong is the co-director on this film, because he left so many bread crumbs behind, so many great pieces that you could string together to make a film," explains Jenkins. "He had the foresight to document his own work and to donate his work to people who would care for it and share it with people so they could learn. Having access to that was just the meat and potatoes, and then, everything else in so many ways is just icing on the steak, if you will."
"He's a reflection of the times and the environment and, unfortunately, a lot of things have not changed."
Nowadays, Armstrong is so universally beloved that it might be easy to forget that he faced no shortage of discrimination as both a Black man living in America and rising to fame in the 1920s, particularly as he toured the segregated South. As the documentary unfolds, viewers gets a better sense of how complicated and draining the racism and prejudice he faced was, even as he consistently managed to put on a happy face for audiences.
"What he was able to accomplish considering the environment and the climate is beyond inspirational," Jenkins says. "It's something that people can actually look at and learn [from]. You can actually sit down, watch this man — how he moves — and learn how to maneuver yourself. Things are not great now in America with race and class and money, and everything else, but things were, I imagine, way worse back then. So, if he could navigate it, then you should be able to take notes now and figure out how to navigate it now."
"Louis Armstrong caught a gun charge at 14. That sounds pretty hip hop to me," he adds. "He's a reflection of the times and the environment and, unfortunately, a lot of things have not changed. And that's why he's super contemporary."
Of course, in discussing Armstrong's life and legacy, music is a key component. So many artists can trace their influences back to Armstrong, including Nina Simone, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. But Jenkins didn't want to be constrained to only talking about Armstrong as a musician.
"His music is undeniable. Any generation, someone's going to dig it, someone's going to say that's genius. But I really believe in order to understand the music, you have to understand the man," he says. "There are some people who have said, 'Oh, there's not enough musicology in the film.' But I felt that there was enough to give you a baseline ticket to understanding the music."
Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues strives to understand its subject as a musician, an icon, and, ultimately, a man. As Jenkins put it, "He's just a very special person." The filmmaker was happy to highlight Armstrong for a new generation, and highlight what made him a bona fide genius with an enduring legacy.
As the filmmaker puts it, "It's great at a time like this when you have people who shall remain nameless, who are famous, who have a lot of money, who are musicians, who constantly have to tell people that they're geniuses, who constantly have to tell you that they understand politics, who are actually really divisive. It's great to be able to tell a story about someone who's not that."