In 1989, jazz writer-turned-director Gary Giddins crafted Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong, with Melvin Van Peebles as the craggy musical voice of America’s first great jazz man and interviewees such as Wynton Marsalis discussing the travails of the trumpeter’s life, the deep-seated racism of his time, and the manner in which he was looked down upon by Black activist America for his once-perceived “Uncle Tom-ism.” Giddins’ doc, co-directed with Kendrick Simmons, wove together Super-8 home movies, newsreel footage, and Hollywood film clips to create an angered-and-awed mosaic of viewpoints on Armstrong from collaborators both Black and white.
In 2022, hip-hop writer-turned-documentarian Sacha Jenkins crafted Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, with Nas as the craggy musical voice of America’s first great jazz man and interviewees such as Wynton Marsalis discussing the travails of the trumpeter’s life, the deep-seated racism of his time, and the manner in which he was looked down upon by Black activist America for his once-perceived “Uncle Tom-ism.” Jenkins’ doc, made in collaboration with Imagine producer Ron Howard, weaves together Super-8 home movies, newsreel footage, and Hollywood film clips to create an angered-and-awed mosaic of viewpoints on Armstrong from collaborators both Black and white.
The difference between the two documentaries, beyond the new film’s hi-def graphics and poignant, pointed finds such as vintage interviews with Armstrong’s fiercest critics like Ossie Davis (listening to the actor/author/activist feeling shock at the sight of an Armstrong forlorn and frustrated at being mistreated by fellow Black artists will bring tears to your eyes), is that Black & Blues cuts deeper and draws blood. Giddins’ vision is great, but Jenkins fuels a more visceral, even incendiary experience.
That fire comes from the director’s judicious use of Armstrong’s own smartly lyrical letters (seeing the way he stylizes the word “marijuana” is priceless), touring diaries, and homemade voice recordings—a voice that isn’t the scatting, happy rasp of popular early tracks such as “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” or the sing-song-y latter-day likes of “Now You Has Jazz” from MGM’s High Society. Armstrong was pissed off: at white American managers for taking his money, at white American bookers and hoteliers who’d happily hire his bands to sell out their shows but wouldn’t allow him to stay or eat in their establishments. (Hearing him call one Hollywood lackey a “peckerwood” is by itself worth the price of admission.)
Armstrong was even more disgusted that many Black Americans by the time of the civil-rights movement had mistaken his toothy smile and wide-eyed stare—something Marsalis admits to hating with a passion as a young man—as collaboration in his own “Tom-ing.” This couldn’t have been farther from the truth; the film makes clear that the public image was nothing more than a visage to mask sadness, and archival news footage shows the trumpeter harshly criticizing the Eisenhower administration for looking the other way as Black students got harassed while attempting to integrate Southern schools. Lots of f-bombs get dropped by good ol’ Satchmo in Black & Blues.
Mostly, though, there is joy to be found in Jenkins’ doc and its lively subject. For every slight to Armstrong’s person, there’s the glow of pride he felt in bringing forth a new kind of music before most could even imagine it, at forging racial harmony with white musicians such as Jack Teagarden, and for making a life based on community, social service, and spirit even when put upon himself.