Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues Reveals the Complex Life of a Music Pioneer [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Miles Marshall Lewis
No one musician invented jazz, just as blues, gospel, R&B, rock or hiphop can’t be attributed to a single, solitary person. Documentaries like Ken Burns’s Jazz give their proper respect due to King Oliver and Buddy Bolden as key figures in the invention of the genre. But no one looms larger in the mythology of jazz’s invention and evolution than Louis Armstrong. Maybe most famous for his 1967 single “What a Wonderful World,” the original lodestar of jazz had already influenced several schools of the genre up until that point—inventing the scat, revolutionizing vocal delivery and pioneering the jazz solo. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, a new Apple TV+ documentary by director Sacha Jenkins, puts a unique spin on Satchmo’s personal history.
Onstage after a recent preview screening at Manhattan’s annual Urbanworld film festival, Jenkins mentioned Louis Armstrong’s arrest on a gun charge at age 12, as well as his lifelong love of marijuana—commonalities between Armstrong’s story and any given 21st century rap artist. At different points in the film, Nas provides voice over, solidifying the link between jazz and hip hop as expressions of African-American genius. Nas vocalizing the profuse profanity from Armstrong’s various letters definitely elicited laughter in the audience. These little details take Satchmo out of the grandfatherly mold he’s been cast in for too long and into a more modern context.
Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues includes the legendary trumpeter’s own voice through copious reel-to-reel recordings he created at his Queens home, a de facto audio diary created over his lifetime. Rather than resort to subtitles for various inscrutable passages (difficult to understand because of Armstrong’s rasp and the tapes’ lo-fi audio quality), animated graphics take over, solving the problem by transcribing his words as if stripped from archival newspaper clippings.
Ossie Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Amiri Baraka and others all speak to Armstrong’s brilliant innovations; Davis and Baraka in particular discuss unjust perceptions of Louis Armstrong as somewhat of an Uncle Tom lacking racial politics of his own. Though jazz legend Miles Davis went on record that he “always hated the way [Armstrong] used to laugh and grin to the audiences,” in Black & Blues, Davis is quoted defending Armstrong against accusations of minstrelsy. The documentary refutes this image, citing Satchmo’s insistence to be accommodated at the segregated hotels that booked him, as well as his monetary contributions to the civil rights movement.
Having helmed previous documentary projects dedicated to Rick James and Wu-Tang Clan, director Sacha Jenkins brings a hipper perspective to the jazz pioneer by framing his life, times and achievements almost as if he were an MC: his weed, his four-letter words, his brushes with the law. His approach modernizes Satchmo’s legend anew, making Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues feel as contemporary as recent docs dedicated to Lil Baby or XXXTentacion. What a wonderful world indeed.
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.