Sacha Jenkins does something so straightforward with how he begins “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” that it’s easy to overlook his intent. He opens with a clip of Orson Welles introducing Armstrong on a TV talk show in 1970. As it happens, this was barely a year before Armstrong’s death. But that’s irrelevant to the point Jenkins wants to make.
The Apple TV+ documentary begins streaming Oct. 28.
There are many clips in the film of Armstrong being interviewed, as well as of him appearing in movies and in news footage and performing. And that’s not counting scores and scores of vintage photographs. The archival research here is quite prodigious. It helps make the documentary so consistently lively and informative, as well as comprehensive. It’s also one of the reasons “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” is not infrequently surprising. Who knew that James Baldwin, after listening to Armstrong play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” told a friend that that was the first time he’d ever enjoyed hearing the national anthem?
But back to Welles. Jenkins starts with him because, bang, there it is: a juxtaposition of the two most influential figures in 20th-century American culture. Ernest Hemingway famously said that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” You could argue, perhaps even more accurately, that modern American film begins with “Citizen Kane” and all (yes, all) modern popular music, and not just in America, begins with “West End Blues.”
“Kane” you likely know about. As for Armstrong’s epochal 1928 recording, it didn’t create jazz. But it effectively created jazz as we know it, from the clarion call of Armstrong’s opening trumpet cadenza to his extended scat solo. In those 3 minutes and 21 seconds, there’s a sense of freedom, daring, and liberation that underlies subsequent jazz, yes, but also blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, rap, hip-hop — and, really, popular culture generally in the age of mass media. Armstrong didn’t just light the fuse. He was the fuse.
It’s not surprising if you don’t see, or hear, Armstrong as having such importance. Several things account for his rarely being considered at all revolutionary anymore. One is that the revolution he helped initiate succeeded so well it obscures his achievement. It doesn’t even seem like an achievement now. Another is that Armstrong became such a mainstream figure. A distance greater than that of four decades separates “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World” from “West End Blues.” The year he won a Grammy for his recording of “Hello, Dolly!,” 1965, the revolution was taking place elsewhere: “Rubber Soul,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “A Love Supreme” were all released.
Most important, there was the matter of race. The transformation of American culture that Armstrong had notably contributed to made him seem like a throwback, or even a reactionary figure, with his stage manner, that ever-present handkerchief, and, as the actor Ossie Davis once put it, a grin with “more teeth than a piano has keys.” Davis didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Early on in the documentary, Wynton Marsalis recalls how as a young man growing up in Armstrong’s native New Orleans he viewed him as a sort of Uncle Tom. Soon enough, Marsalis saw otherwise, he says, coming to understand that Armstrong’s phenomenal musicianship went along with a no-less-phenomenal strength of character. One example of the latter was his very public outrage, extending to a denunciation of Dwight Eisenhower, over the abuse showered on Black students in Arkansas integrating Little Rock’s Central High School.
Jenkins confronts the complicatedness of Armstrong and race with another juxtaposition. The first musical number heard in the documentary is Armstrong singing “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” He recorded it in 1929, though the version heard here is from a couple of decades later. It would be 35 years until mainstream popular music would offer as moving or profound a confrontation of racism, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” If the way Armstrong sings “my only sin is in my skin” doesn’t break your heart, you have no heart to break.
Jenkins follows that with Armstrong singing “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” from a 1932 musical short. Armstrong and his band are dressed in “native” costume, such as leopard skins, and the lyrics actually mention fried chicken. It’s jaw-droppingly awful. Yet close your eyes and listen to how gloriously Armstrong sings through the beat, how volcanically he scats, and the headlong velocity of the entire performance. Your jaw drops all over again, and for very different reasons. Even encased in the trappings of racism at its most blatant, Armstrong escapes them through sheer artistry and what Marsalis, flirting with understatement, calls “a transcendent joy.”
Jenkins has given the documentary a structure that’s largely chronological but primarily thematic. The shifting around makes for a nice flow. The film moves along crisply without ever feeling hectic or rushed.
There’s no voice-over. We hear from a very wide range of talking heads: many musicians, several critics, two of Armstrong’s wives. Except there are no heads, only voices. Jenkins lets us hear the speakers without showing them. A simple enough decision, it’s doubly shrewd. It means that the visual focus stays on Armstrong; and archival interviews exist for us on the same plane as those done for the documentary. This lends a sense of contemporaneity to all of them. Jelly Roll Morton died in 1941. Marsalis is very much with us. Yet each man’s insights come across with a similar freshness and sense of relevance. The effect is to underscore how alive Armstrong’s music remains and how relevant his example.
Armstrong is a documentarian’s dream. Not only was he such a charismatic camera presence, he left a treasure trove of scrapbooks and reel-to-reel tapes. In a rare misstep, Jenkins animates some pages from the former. On the tapes, Armstrong shared his thoughts on everything from music to marijuana (he very definitely inhaled). He was also a natural writer, and the rapper Nas reads from Armstrong’s letters and journals.
There are many marvelous moments in the documentary. Let one stand for the rest. We hear Armstrong describe the time he and his wife had an audience with Pope Paul VI. “Do you have any children?” the pontiff asked. “No, daddy, but we’re still wailin’.” Imagine having to translate that into Italian, let alone Latin.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S BLACK & BLUES
Directed by Sacha Jenkins. Streaming on Apple TV+. 106 minutes. R (language — Armstrong could be casual, and unbuttoned, in his use of obscenity— so what? any young person interested in watching should be encouraged to do so).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.