Documentary film “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”, which is currently available on Apple TV+, does more than merely presenting the life and career of Louis Armstrong, who has been regarded as one of the greatest American musicians in the 20th century. While it feels pretty conventional at first, the documentary eventually delves deeper into its surprisingly complex human subject as freely flowing from one point to another in his life and career, and the result is often engaging and enlightening to say the least.
Via a bunch of various archival materials including Armstrong’s private recordings, the documentary gives us a vivid presentation of his life and career. He was born to a poor black family residing in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1901, but he grew up fairly well under his parents along with his siblings, and then he came to show considerable musical talent around the time when he was sent to a house for black juvenile delinquents due to one minor incident. Not long after that, young Armstrong came to play trumpet in local jazz bands, and then his career came to have a big breakthrough when he later moved to Chicago, Illinois thanks to a mentor figure of his.
Eventually, Armstrong came to go his own way thanks to his growing prominence. He became famous not only in Chicago but also in New York City, and he soon found himself performing in London and Paris as he continued to draw more attention. While there was a little trouble with his lousy manager, Armstrong was fortunate enough to have a new manager right after firing that manager, and his new manager turned out to be more helpful and reliable than the previous one. He knew how to pull strings here and there for further promoting Armstrong, and that quickly made Armstrong one of the most famous entertainers in US during that time.
Armstrong steadily maintained his star status during next several decades, but he never forgot how he and many other black people often coped with racism and prejudice. While he mostly stuck to that familiar jovial persona of his in public, he was not your average Uncle Tom at all, and there is an amusing episode about when he gave hell to one white employee on a movie set in Hollywood because of how blatantly he was disregarded by that white employee.
And that was actually mild compared to what Armstrong and many other fellow black musicians often had to endure. Especially when they were in the South, they usually had no choice but to conform to its local segregation rules, and Armstrong surely had many episodes of racism and prejudice to tell. When he was supposed to be introduced on the stage during one concert, the white master of ceremony refused to introduce him just because of his race, and Armstrong eventually had to step forward for introducing himself because there was no other option.
When the Civil Rights Movement was ignited in US around the 1950s, Armstrong was frequently asked about his opinions on the Civil Rights Movement. While he often did not provide much comment, he did not restrain himself at all whenever it looked necessary in his view. As a matter of fact, he did not hesitate at all to criticize President Dwight D. Eisenhower for not giving enough response to a certain big issue of racism and segregation in Arkansas, and he was actually much more supportive of the Civil Rights Movement than he seemed on the surface.
Nevertheless, Armstrong was not regarded that highly among more progressive black people during that time due to his seemingly conforming public image. In an archival interview, late Ossie Davis frankly talks about why he and many others around him did not like much Armstrong as well as what he represented – and how he came to change his mind after accidentally having a private glimpse into Armstrong’s life and humanity on one day.
The documentary also pays some attention to the loving relationship between Armstrong and his fourth wife Lucille. She understood well how stubborn her husband usually was, but she was also equally stubborn to say the least, and that was how she managed to make her husband move into a permanent residence despite his initial reluctance. He did not like that much at first, but, what do you know, he came to love the house a lot more than expected, and he even came to have a little private room of his own where many of his private recordings were stored.
When he was about to be 70 in 1971, Armstrong seemed to be able to go on more, but he eventually passed away not long before his 70th birthday. Although more than 50 years have passed, his music has constantly influenced many musicians who came after him, and his distinctive vocal and instrument performance are still recognizable to many of us. As many of the interviewee in the documentary point out, he is indeed a great musician who brought considerable change to American music, and that should be appreciated more in my inconsequential opinion.
In conclusion, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”, which is directed by Sacha Jenkins, did a splendid job of illuminating some less-known human aspects of Armstrong’s life and career, and it is certainly one of more interesting documentary films of this year. As far as I can see from the documentary, Armstrong was a good man besides being a first-class musician, and that will probably make you admire his lasting artistic legacy more.