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In conversation with 'Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues' director Sacha Jenkins

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

And finally today, we all know this voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Hello, Dolly. This is Louis, Dolly. I'm so glad to have you back where you belong.

FLORIDO: Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and a Black icon beloved for that gravelly voice, his charismatic smile and, of course, his mastery of the trumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY")

FLORIDO: But during his life, Armstrong was not universally loved. In fact, he was scorned by some of his Black peers, accused of not doing enough to advance the cause of Black justice. A half-century after Armstrong's death, filmmaker Sacha Jenkins has made a new documentary about him. It's called "Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues." And Sacha Jenkins is here now. Welcome.

SACHA JENKINS: Hello. Nice to be here.

FLORIDO: Nice to have you. You know, one of the reasons people loved Louis Armstrong so much, aside from his music, was his charm. On stage, he was always smiling from ear to ear. He always seemed to be really happy. But that rubbed some of his Black contemporaries the wrong way. How come?

JENKINS: Well, that was seen, as, you know, Uncle Tomming or performing for the white man, you know, going the extra mile, brown-nosing. And during the '50s and '60s, civil rights is happening. And there's a new generation of folks who are much younger, who have a different approach to life and a different approach to what they feel needs to be done to make change.

FLORIDO: And Louis Armstrong didn't like to speak very much - publicly at least - about racism or civil rights. There's this clip in your movie from a trip that he took overseas when a reporter asked him if he was going to get more involved in the civil rights struggle once he returned to the states.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S BLACK & BLUES")

ARMSTRONG: They have other people, politicians, to take care of things like that. And so the best I can do is put a little something in in their till.

FLORIDO: Why did he feel that the best he could do for civil rights was donate some money?

JENKINS: Well, he was concerned about his health and his safety. And he's not a young man. And people get hurt at these marches. And he believed that if he gets rapped on the lips with a billy club or the butt of a gun, he'll never be able to play again. Therefore, he'll never be able to make a contribution. And for him at that time, it was a financial contribution. So you got to remember, this is a guy who was born in 1901 in the South. I mean, that's just two skips away from slavery. And I can imagine that not much had changed since 1865 and 1901 New Orleans. So he's a guy who's coming from having to maneuver through some serious, murky waters.

FLORIDO: He didn't stay totally quiet, though, right? I mean, there was at least one notable instance when he did speak out.

JENKINS: Yeah. I mean, the school integration situation really pissed him off. And Little Rock was happening, a situation where they were integrating schools, and the people down there weren't so nice. And Armstrong basically called out Mr. Eisenhower, the president, and said, listen, I'm really angry about this, and I'm really fed up and we've got to do something. And if you're willing to go there, I will go with you. I mean, he was willing to put it on the line himself. So in his own way, he was a civil rights activist, but people didn't see that then.

FLORIDO: Well, that's what your film is trying to do, to sort of recontextualize Louis Armstrong. And to do that, you dug into his personal archives, which I didn't realize that he loved recording audio on reel-to-reel tapes. And he had a recorder in his home in Queens for 40 years and taped his conversations with his friends. What did you learn when you started listening to those personal tapes of his?

JENKINS: Well, I learned that the Louis Armstrong that I thought I knew was completely different from the man who was Louis Armstrong. But it made sense to me as a Black person in America, this sort of duality that you've got to maintain to navigate life every day. And it's a voice that is surprising to hear. And that's the great gift of the film. You're hearing Armstrong, the man. You're getting to know Armstrong, the man. And by the time you get to the end of the film and you know what's going to happen, he's going to pass away, you feel like you know him.

FLORIDO: I was amazed on those tapes by how much he does talk about racism, the racist things that fans would say to him, you know, how he felt about having to perform at hotels where he wasn't allowed to rent a room, about how angry it made him to be accused of basically doing too much to appease white people. Why, Sacha, was it important to you for people to see and hear this side of Louis Armstrong?

JENKINS: Because people think that he's somehow passive and doesn't have an opinion. And when you hear him in his own voice saying, when have I Uncle Tommed, you got to ask yourself, well, when did you do Uncle Tom? And so a lot of the perception of his Uncle Tomming or being performative or performing for the white man, a lot of it was tied into his facial expressions and his mannerisms and these things that are tied into stereotypes that were amplified and, honestly, created by white folks to marginalize us. There are Black people who happen to be smiley. There are Black people, just like there are white people, who happen to be smiley.

And obviously, there weren't a lot of things to smile about, per se, but it's like that's the message in the Louis Armstrong story. If he let himself be defeated, if he let American society hold him back, popular music would not be what it is today. Popular culture in America and the world would not be what it is today. He's a very special individual to be able to perform what I call this emotional and spiritual jujitsu. To navigate all that's thrown at him is something that's - just makes him a wholly unique special person for the time he came up.

FLORIDO: I was, you know, struck by some archival film that you found of the late actor Ossie Davis, who said that he'd been one of those people who had mocked Armstrong for being so friendly with white people, so happy all the time, until one day he came across Louis Armstrong during a quiet moment on a movie set, sitting in a chair looking, you know, anguished and exhausted.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S BLACK & BLUES")

OSSIE DAVIS: What I saw in that look shook me. It was my father, my uncle, myself down through the generations doing exactly what Louis had to do for the same reason - to survive. I never laughed at Louis after that.

FLORIDO: This felt like a really pivotal moment in your film.

JENKINS: I mean, it's the thesis. When we found it, I was like, eureka. This is unbelievable. And I've been telling people I really believe that Mr. Armstrong is the co-director on this film because between his stellar documentation of his own work that he sort of harvested and the things that surround him, other programs and things that were made, the puzzle pieces were there in plain sight for so long. So it was such a thrill and a huge opportunity to be able to tell his story working with the puzzle pieces we had.

FLORIDO: Sacha Jenkins' new documentary, "Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues," is streaming now on Apple TV+. Sacha Jenkins, thanks for speaking with me.

JENKINS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.