When I was a kid, Louis Armstrong was the gravelly voice who sang on the Ella Fitzgerald jazz records my Pops played. I was especially fond of their cover of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Armstrong was also the guy who crooned “Hello, Dolly” to Barbra Streisand in the astonishingly bad 1969 film version of that hit Broadway show. I had little appreciation for jazz. However, Fitzgerald intrigued me because her scatting sounded like cussing. It gave me that tingly feeling you get when sneaking around with something forbidden.
Back then, I had no idea that it was Louis Armstrong who brought scatting to the masses, or that he was the primary innovator of jazz, or that he lived out his later days not 20 miles from my hometown of Jersey City, N.J. I wish I’d had the rich, detailed education that director Sacha Jenkins’s Apple TV+ documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” teaches its viewers.
So in late October, when the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., asked me to do a post-screening Q&A with Jenkins, his editor Jason Pollard, and producer Justin Wilkes, the request set into motion my weekend with Louis Armstrong. It started on a Friday with a screening of their movie at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, followed by a visit to Queens that Saturday, and ended with my chat with the filmmakers on Sunday.
My adventure was supposed to start that Wednesday with a Louis Armstrong tribute band’s show at Manhattan’s famous jazz club Birdland. The venue was so crowded I couldn’t get in. As I stalked away mad, I could imagine Armstrong’s version of “Black and Blue” accompanying my walk of shame. In “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” this song plays after Orson Welles introduces Armstrong on British host David Frost’s talk show. The juxtaposition of the man who changed cinema with “Citizen Kane” and the man who changed American music was no accident. Jenkins was making a statement his film would repeatedly back up: Armstrong was an underappreciated genius who never got his due.
Trumpet legend and fellow New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis is the first interviewee we hear from, and his initial remarks are about how “Pops” (as Armstrong was often called) initially did nothing for him. Basically, he thought he was an Uncle Tom, and only appreciated him after trying unsuccessfully to play one of his solos. I remembered a relative of mine who felt the same way, to the point where Armstrong’s music was forbidden in her house. “He did nothing for our people during the civil rights years,” she’d say. That “What a Wonderful World” song he recorded in 1967 (and which I despise) didn’t help matters — what was so wonderful for Black folks back then?
Publicly, Armstrong often kept his opinions on current events to himself. “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” reveals that, privately, he voiced his opinions freely on his recordings and to his friends. Jenkins and company had access to 700 hours of reel-to-reel tape, recordings Armstrong made in the den of his Corona, Queens, house. The man recorded everything, from parties to his own inner thoughts. It’s fun to hear Armstrong obliterate his friendly, grinning public persona with language saltier than the Pacific Ocean, words he occasionally used to describe being Black in America or in response to people who thought he shucked and jived. “When the [expletive] have I Uncle Tommed in my life?” he asks.
We also hear his fourth wife, Lucille Armstrong, talking about why her husband often kept these views to himself. “Either he said nothing,” she says, “or when he got angry, he said what was in his heart.”
It was Lucille who secretly bought the Queens home they’d live in for decades. Lucille died in 1983, and her will left the house to the City of New York to be turned into a museum. It opened for public tours in 2003. This museum was my second stop on my weekend with Louis Armstrong. I attended a tour to see the location where Jenkins shot some of his footage. The house is a modest brick building, a surprisingly approachable home for a millionaire, one where two generations of neighborhood kids visited “Uncle Satchmo” and “Aunt Lucille” on their stoop, in their garden, and on their patio.
Pictures weren’t allowed inside, so I can’t show the jaw-dropping mirrored bathroom or the gorgeous chandeliers, and I regret not having the adequate words to describe the “kitchen of the future,” an awesome, extremely blue room where the appliances were built into the countertops. But for the most part, this was just a regular house. In each room, the tour guide pressed a button that played snippets of Armstrong’s reel-to-reel recordings.
Armstrong’s den mirrored images from the documentary. There were the collages of newspaper clippings Jenkins used as the aesthetic for his film’s visuals. There was a reel-to-reel machine and walls of tapes. The recording that played in this room leapt from Armstrong talking to suddenly playing a trumpet solo. “Imagine walking by the house and hearing this,” said the tour guide. I turned away from our group because I had tears in my eyes. Maybe it was because I play the trumpet, which can feel like blowing into a doorknob. Maybe it was because I felt Armstrong’s presence in that room.
I was brought back to reality when a member of our group mentioned he was visiting New York to hear his nephew play in a Louis Armstrong tribute band at Birdland! “You think he can get me a damn ticket?” I asked, wiping my eyes.
At Sunday’s Q&A, Sacha Jenkins told a funny story. I asked him if being in Armstrong’s house influenced how he made his film. He said he’d wanted to shoot footage of Ella and Louis’s recording of “April in Paris” playing on the phonograph in the den. It was the last song Armstrong listened to the night he passed away in his sleep. But it wouldn’t play. Just when they were about to give up, the phonograph came on by itself. “I normally don’t believe in stuff like that,” Jenkins said. “But Louis had a sense of humor.”
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.