Sacha Jenkins’ engrossing and informative documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” reintroduces one of the 20th century’s most towering and beloved cultural icons to a new generation. Born and raised in New Orleans, Louis (often pronounced Louie) Armstrong was possibly the first racial “crossover” figure in the second half of the 20th century.
That was because Armstrong, a pioneering prodigy in the world of jazz music for his virtuosity in trumpet and cornet playing and incredibly distinctive singing made recordings, toured the country and the world, appeared on television shows such as the “Ed Sullivan Show” and in films such as “High Society” (1956) and “Paris Blues” (1961). Known as Satch, Satchmo and Pops to his fans and friends, Armstrong is introduced in an opening shot on a TV show hosted by Orson Welles. We hear Wynton Marsalis describe Armstrong as a “deep person.” We see a bit from a 10-minute 1932 Paramount short film entitled “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue,” a controversial forerunner of music videos, featuring an outlandishly garbed Armstrong playing his horn and singing on a floor of soap bubbles. We will be reminded later that many Black artists took exception to Armstrong’s “bug-eyed grinning” and altogether-too-agreeable manner, a young, fiery Ossie Davis among them.
But no one denied Satchmo’s talent and influence, not even Miles Davis. Jenkins notes that Armstrong and his band toured the United States at a time when many parts of the country were segregated and it was difficult to know when they would find hotels and restaurants they could patronize and toilets they could use. On these tours, Armstrong often played before segregated audiences, a practice he eventually ended.
Jenkins traces Armstrong’s rise from New Orleans’ most impoverished neighborhoods. As a vocalist, Armstrong would put his inimitably gravelly stamp on everything from “Mack the Knife,” a “murder ballad” composed by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and “Hello, Dolly,” a Jerry Herman tune that knocked the Beatles off the Billboard #1 spot in 1964, to the John Barry-composed Bond theme “We Have All the Time in the World,” a song recorded when Armstrong’s health was in decline. Jenkins’ enlists black-and-white and color archival footage, interviews, still photographs and many aspect ratios to paint his closely observed portrait.
We hear Armstrong reminisce about the Jewish family that employed him as a rag-and-bone collector and helped teach and feed him as a child (Armstrong wore a Star of David all his adult life). We hear about an arrest and his time in the “Colored Waif Home,” where he would join the organization’s band, playing cornet and working with his first music teacher Peter Davis.
In the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement began to gain momentum, Armstrong did not make his voice heard very much. But he did send a wire to President Dwight D. Eisenhower offering to appear with him in Little Rock, Arkansas to defuse a racial confrontation. When he wasn’t touring, Armstrong and his last wife Lucille lived in a modest, middle-class brick home in Queens. Executive produced by Ron Howard, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” shines a light on one of our culture’s most important figures and his unique contribution to our lives.
(“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” contains profanity and mature themes)
“LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S BLACK & BLUES”
Rated R. On Apple+