Not a wonderful world: Louis Armstrong’s recordings reveal how racism marked his life and career | Louis Armstrong
He were a founding father of jazz, a trumpet virtuoso and a deep-voiced singer revered the world over with Mack the Knife and Hello, Dolly! among his lasting successes. Yet Louis Armstrong was so focused on how history would judge him that he sought to preserve his own story for posterity by recording his memories, including the prejudice he experienced about the color of his skin. .
Now the creators of a major documentary about the famous musician, nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, have gained unprecedented access to this archive, which includes thousands of hours of never-before-seen audio recordings.
On these tapes, Armstrong, who died in 1971, talks about being “born with nothing” and the horrors of racism. He remembers being insulted by an apparent fan – “a white boy”, possibly a sailor, who approached him after a show, first shaking his hand and telling him he had all his records, before turning on him: “He said, ‘you know, I don’t like niggers, to the nose. And so I said, ‘well, I admire your fucking sincerity.’ said, ‘I don’t like niggers but… you’re a son of a bitch I’m crazy about.
Armstrong laments that the majority of white people “don’t like” black people, but they still have one “that they’re just crazy about”.
In another clip, he talks about a crew member who disrespected him, giving him orders during the filming of alley of glory in 1952. Armstrong said to him, “’Why are you giving me that shit? Because I’m colored?’… I didn’t like it. I’m just showing you what I’m going through for no reason.
The recordings will be heard in an upcoming feature-length documentary, The Black and the Blues of Louis Armstrongwhich will be released this fall after premiering this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
There are so many recordings that it took the filmmakers about two years to restore, digitize and transcribe them.
Justin Wilkes, the film’s co-producer and president of Imagine Documentaries, told the Observer that he had been surprised by the quantity of unknown material: “From December 1950, Louis bought a tape recorder and almost religiously recorded his daily thoughts.
“Sometimes it’s just him talking. Sometimes it’s other people, his wife, other musicians. It was for his own records. On the tapes, he talks a lot about wanting to preserve his story for posterity. More often than not, his public persona was very different from what he ultimately believed. Many of his inner emotions shine through on the tapes. All these tapes remained in this archive.
“We have the only filmed footage of a recording session of him. We also have snippets of some songs that have never been heard before.
“Race is the number one topic he grapples with and contemplates his entire life as a black man growing up in America in the 20th century… On the one hand, he is literally the most famous person in the world… and then, on the at the same time there are still hotels where he can’t walk through the front door [and] restaurants that won’t place him because of the color of his skin. As you can imagine, he is very committed to this, but sometimes tempers what he says publicly.
Wilkes said only a “small group of jazz historians” knew about the archives, held by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, that turned his Queens, New York, home into a museum.
In a music industry dominated by white businessmen, Armstrong recalled in a tape challenging his manager for taking the lion’s share of his earnings: “I said, ‘You could be my manager and you could be the biggest shit and book me in the biggest places in the world… But when I get on that… stage with that horn and I’m in trouble, you can’t save me.
Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections for the Armstrong Museum and consulting producer on the film, said: “For much of his career, fans around the world responded to the love and warmth that Louis radiated on scene but, in the 1950s and 1960s, many of his African-American fans began to regard him as a relic, someone who was unaware of the civil rights movement, someone who was afraid of s express because he was so loved by white people. I hope this film blows those notions totally out of the water.
“Hearing him in his own words – hearing pain, hearing pain, hearing him swear – will be the first time many people will experience this side of Louis Armstrong. What is important is that it he’s the one who left those tapes, so he really wanted that side to be known.
“It took 51 years after his death to come to this.”
Directed by Emmy-nominated Sacha Jenkins, Apple Original Films presents Brian Grazer’s production and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries in association with Polygram Entertainment.