Satchmo’s documentary delves into the wonders – and hardships – of his world


Jon W poses

In recent years, there has been an abundance of music documentaries.

Some are released theatrically, others are destined for one of the streaming services; and, in the age of COVID-19, many are arriving in a hybrid way – using both indoor and home screens.

I am happy to report that several jazz personalities have received such treatment, with recent projects centering on more obvious giants such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and John Coltrane, as well as others such that trumpeter Lee Morgan – who is definitely a giant for those who follow the genre closely.

In recent weeks, two other jazz documentaries have been created. One, “Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes,” arrived via PBS and continues to be available through that network online. I haven’t had time to watch it yet, other than a few minutes at a time.

I sat down to watch it a little over two weeks ago — when I saw a promo for the Apple TV+ premiere of “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”

Carter, now 85, deserves the nickname “jazz giant”. He has appeared on some 2,200 albums and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded bassist in history, regardless of genre. Still, even knowing I could watch the Armstrong documentary some other time, Satchmo got me.

Those who remember “Jazz,” Ken Burns’ 19-hour multi-episode extravaganza will remember Armstrong as the central thread throughout the production of the marathon, which is to say the director Sacha Jenkins has plenty of material to fill in what amounts to a two-hour “eyeball” into Armstrong’s music and life.

At the time of the Burns documentary some 20 years ago, I remember being somewhat disappointed that the composite material seemed to stick to the so-called “early jazz” — the early decades music. I distinctly remember that Armstrong didn’t miss out on screen time, whether through historical photographs, live clips, and/or talks by the various talking heads Burns presented throughout the project.

I count myself among those who then focused on the jazz of the time. Burns covered bebop, Davis and the “Cool” movement, but barely mentioned the likes of Ornette Coleman. Assessing Armstrong then, it seemed like he and his music were so commercial, sometimes with entries like “Hello Dolly” and “What A Wonderful World,” that I couldn’t convince those who felt the trumpeter was no only important, but that it also served as jazz’s first number one.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that Armstrong’s contribution to jazz was not only unmatched, but probably surpassed the pack. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the house in Corona, Queens, which he shared with the last of his four wives, Lucille Armstrong, kept as a public museum.

Considering Armstrong’s royalties and resulting income, describing the abode as “modest” isn’t even close. For starters, the garage serves as a gift shop.

Aside from the teal enameled metal kitchen cabinets, which use piano hinges to open and close them, this is his office – complete with dozens and dozens of tapes he’s made, recording himself talking – who impressed the most. The space was obviously his personal refuge.

The office, those tapes, the paper trail filled with his thoughts, ideas and opinions, are simply remarkable. Louis Armstrong’s public persona, if not 180 degrees from his private world, is damn close to it.

All of this is brought to light in Jenkins’ film. “Black & Blues” reveals a mountain of never-before-seen clips of Armstrong interacting with an unlimited number of people, traveling the world, and receiving what we consider rock star treatment.

The film also delves into “the dark side”, segregationist politics and politics as well as the (lack of) civil rights of the time. The film depicts how Armstrong dealt with the duality of being rich and famous in the world on the one hand, but unable to stay in the hotel where he performed on the other.

“Black & Blues,” the track taken from the Fats Waller co-written composition that Armstrong recorded, is not a performance-based delivery. Rather, it’s a socio-political examination of the man who invented the solo, who invented scat singing, who moved the needle of jazz forward, more than anyone in history.

While I wasn’t totally enamored with Jenkins’ quick cuts and back-and-forth style, we walk away from ‘Louis Armstrong: Black & Blues’ with a great sense of the musician’s true popularity and his unstoppable ability to be so creative and act royally in what is sometimes a hostile and blatantly racist climate.

The film is worth watching – and gratifying in many ways, too.

It was while at the Armstrong household that I learned and understood – having grown up in Queens myself – that “What A Wonderful World” is not about our planet, but rather an introspective ballad where Satchmo attempts to describe his neighborhood, a tree-lined block filled with children he loved. This is a man who, in his prime – and this was a longtime peak – relished getting off the road and back into his world.

I have now come to appreciate Armstrong’s multi-layered meaning. At his home, a parked passenger van features a classic photo illustration of Armstrong wrapping around the vehicle. Louis plays the horn, holds a handkerchief in one hand and strikes notes with the other. One thing I know, the pose makes for a heck of a screensaver.

Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” jazz series. Contact him at [email protected]

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