Louis Armstrongs Black & Blues Review: A Documentary Worthy of its Monumental Subject

There are great artists, and then there are artists of such titanic power that they literally change the world. I’m thinking of Shakespeare, Leonardo, Dostoevsky, Picasso. Louis Armstrong is on that Olympian plane. Yet he’s the rare example of an artist whose very fame, image, and media mythology can actually obscure his revolutionary grandeur as a creator. When he first came to prominence, in the ’20s and early ’30s, you heard the Armstrong revolution in every note he played or sang. He blasted the trumpet into an incandescent upper register, hitting high Cs audiences would talk about for days, yet it’s not as if this was some feat of musical mountain-climbing. He was in his own stratosphere, playing from the heavens. Each note vibrated like a shimmering pearl lit from within. No one had sounded like that; no one had commanded like that.

“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” directed by Sacha Jenkins, is a captivating documentary that does justice to the monumental nature of Louis Armstrong’s genius, and one of the film’s tantalizing paradoxes is that even as Armstrong remains a holy 20th-century icon, the film is likely to open many viewers’ eyes — for the first time — to who he really was.

We hear a clip of the late sax legend Artie Shaw stating, “I would say jazz almost stems from Louis Armstrong.” True enough, but even if you credit Armstrong as the prime innovator of jazz, what he invented is so much larger. He pioneered the concept of improvisation as we know it. And that was more than a musical invention — it was a personal/existential one, an analog for the 20th-century impulse of forging one’s destiny moment by moment. Armstrong created the system of musical imagination by which a musician would now pour out what was in his mind and heart.

That became the foundation not only of jazz but of rock ‘n’ roll. If Elvis and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis took the blues and injected it with an electrified spirit that made it move and bounce and explode, Armstrong showed them the way by beating them to it — his music was the blues reconfigured into a complex free-form joy. In the movie, the jazz legend Archie Shepp describes Armstrong as “the first soloist to break away from Western harmony, and to reintroduce the melodic and rhythmic elements of African music.” This was the key musical paradigm shift of the 20th century, and it was Armstrong who drove the locomotive. No wonder he smashed that train through so many barriers. He was the first Black performer to open a club, a ballroom, a radio station, the first Black movie actor to have his name above the title.

In the documentary, we hear a good story about how Armstrong invented scat singing. It was during the 1926 recording session for “Heebie Jeebies.” Armstrong had lost his lyric sheet by dropping it onto the floor somewhere, but the president of OKeh records, who was seated in the booth, ordered him to keep on singing. So Armstrong reached back to what he had done as a kid, singing on New Orleans street corners to hustle money, making up melodies with no words. In the recording studio, he filled that space on the spot, and it was a thing of beauty. (It was also the prototype for every guitar solo you’ve ever heard.)

But as Armstrong explains, with a beguiling touch of pride, making something out of nothing was an art practiced out of necessity by African-Americans. On “The Mike Douglas Show” in the ’60s, he recalls how as a kid he would go to the market and buy a bundle of fish heads wrapped in newspaper; this was the stuff the fish mongers were throwing away, so it cost pennies. He would take it home, where his mother slow-cooked the fish heads with stewed tomatoes, which made for a succulent feast — and then he took his sandwiches to school the next day, and every kid wanted a bite.

The movie vividly captures Armstrong’s youth, how he discovered the cornet while serving an 18-month detention in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, and how he gravitated to the Storyville red-light district (he worked in brothels there), which was the down-and-dirty musical heart of New Orleans. He idolized Joe “King” Oliver, and by the time he was in his 20s he was playing with Oliver in Chicago, where Armstrong was ordered to stand 15 feet back from the stage. Otherwise he’d overpower Oliver, who didn’t take long to figure out that his protégé was a greater player than he was.

Wynton Marsalis, a sly bard of Armstrong appreciation in Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” is interviewed extensively here as well, and Marsalis talks about how when he was growing up he didn’t appreciate Armstrong, because he couldn’t get past his image. “In New Orleans,” recalls Marsalis, “so much of what we call Uncle Tommin’ went on, playing Dixie and shufflin’. In my time I hated that with unbelievable passion.” But then, after he left New Orleans, his father sent him a tape of Armstrong and said, “Why don’t you learn one of these Pops solos?” Marsalis couldn’t play it; the endurance required was too great — the power to stay in the upper register, and the liquid force of those notes. That’s when he saw the virtuosity. The vision.

One of the revelations of “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” is that it deals with how much of Armstrong’s happy public image was a mask of survival. We see many clips of Armstrong on talk shows, where he can be obsequious (and also, if you really listen to him, quietly aggressive), and there’s a startling interview with Ossie Davis, who like Wynton Marsalis is merciless about his original feelings toward Armstrong. “We knew he could play the horn,” says Davis, “but that didn’t save him from our malice and our ridicule. Everywhere we looked, there would be old Louis, sweat poppin’, eyes buggin’, mouth wide open, grinnin’ oh my lord from ear to ear. Doin’ his thing for the white man.” Davis didn’t change that opinion until 1966, when he was working with Armstrong and Cicely Tyson on the movie “A Man Called Adam,” and he came upon Armstrong on an empty set one day. Armstrong was sitting by himself, and what Davis saw on his face was a look of such haunted, stone-cold melancholy that it shook him. He saw that “beneath that gravel voice and that shuffle, under all that mouth with more teeth than a piano had keys, was a horn that could kill a man.”

Thanks to the archival research Jenkins has done, we get to experience that side of Armstrong. The film features audiotape recordings of him, speaking in private, where he seems like a different man. He curses a blue streak, calling people “motherfucker,” he throws the N-word around in a way that lets you feel the ungodly sting of it and also his transcendence of it, and he shows you the anger and calculation beneath the image. Armstrong had to navigate a showbiz world that was treacherous in its exploitation, and in 1932, during his first trip to Europe, he learned that his manager was making 20,000 pounds a week off him, while he got 100 pounds. We hear a tape of Armstrong recalling his reaction to this, and it’s shocking in its lethal defiance. It was then that Armstrong hooked up with Joe Glaser, who was powerful and Mobbed up and became his manager and protector. It was an imperfect situation, but Armstrong did what he had to do in an imperfect world. (Navigating that was part of his genius, too.)    

“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” could have delved more richly into Armstrong’s musical development. It gives you a strong taste of his early days, but then it kind of leaps forward to the ’50s and ’60s, when he was already an elder statesman of jazz. No mention is made of the times he literally blew out his lips, leaving them scarred. Yet the movie paints a daunting portrait of the terrifying Jim Crow world he came from, and the caution and compassion it bred in him. (The first time he played in Baltimore, where it was freezing, he bought 300 bags of coal for the poor.) And though he never became a Civil Rights activist, in 1957 he denounced President Eisenhower — and then sent him a wire asking if Eisenhower would join him to enter Central High in Little Rock during that cataclysmic integration war. It never happened, of course. Yet Louis Armstrong knew that his protest was already lodged in every note he played. The America he was born into built itself on industry, technology, ideology. What Armstrong gave it was the musical pulse of freedom.

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