The making of Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues – how the album came to be and what it meant to the legendary musician


It is probably unwise to try and determine the most influential pop-culture figure of the th century. However, if one were forced to make a choice, Louis Armstrong would be a good option. He was one of the forefathers of modern jazz and had a large hand in shaping it into the form we know today. America’s story of both resplendent hope and inhuman oppression is written in his bones–he turned the Star-Spangled Banner into a fractured anthem of pride and frustration long before Jimi Hendrix did. To hear and see him sing in his incomparably expressive purr or hit one of his famously sweet high notes is truly an experience.

C’s on the trumpet, dishing the dirt with amiable savoir faire on a TV talk show–was to love him. Through a career spanning more than half a century, the world came to adore Louis Armstrong, but he truly belonged to America–even if we didn’t deserve him. Sacha Jenkins’ sublime documentary Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues entwines Armstrong’s story with that of the century he helped shape, from the Jazz Age, through the Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, to the era of Vietnam and the Cold War.

The much-loved home of the couple in Corona, Queens is enlivened by footage from Armstrong’s life and career, as well as animated collages that appear to be inspired by those Armstrong made himself. Jenkins’ documentaries include the survey of hip-hop fashion Fresh Dressed, as well as *******’ The Sound and Fury of Rick James, from .

The wisdom of writers like Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraka, as well as latter-day trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, has helped to shine a light on the genius of Louis Armstrong. Marsalis confesses that, despite the entreaties of his father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, it took him a while to accept Armstrong’s genius; he couldn’t get past Armstrong’s demeanor as an entertainer, which he saw as a kind of Uncle Tom routine designed to pander to white folks.

About Armstrong, whose gifts as a musician were inextricable from his deeply personable warmth as an entertainer, it is clear that he was the whole package. He was respected and adored across the globe. The performance footage chosen by Jenkins shows why: There’s Armstrong as a very young man, taking the stage first in his native New Orleans and later in Chicago, where his career skyrocketed. A performance of “Mack the Knife” is a marvel of phrasing—the lyrics seem to be surfing the waves of his affable growl.

Armstrong always loved playing and singing, as it was a way of expressing both his gratitude for his country and his grave disappointment in it. As an entertainer and a public figure, Armstrong both bestowed blessings and accepted them gratefully. A s-era television clip shows him with one of his early music teachers, a gentleman named Peter Davis, describing his young pupil’s gifts. The two stand side-by-side, and it’s impossible to discern who is more pleased.


What becomes clear from watching the footage of Armstrong’s performances is that he was a master of his craft. He had a deep understanding of music and was able to connect with his audience in a way that few musicians are able to. His warmth and personality shine through in every performance, making it easy to see why he was so respected and loved by fans all over the world.


Hakan Author

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