Sacha Jenkins Honors Pops’ Legacy As A Jazz Founding Father

Jan 14, 2023

In an odd moment of chance, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” is released at a moment in which musical artist Kanye West is rapidly losing the support of the global brands he was associated with due to his recent tirade of anti-Semitic comments. To observe a standard but thoughtful look at a trailblazing artist, while such a prominent contemporary musical innovator has positioned themselves as the architect of their downfall, is somewhat bewildering in contrast. This focus on the life and trials of Louis Armstrong isn’t reinventing the wheel at any point. It’s doubtful that many would think as much. However, this breezy yet informative watch has perhaps accidentally illustrated not just how far black musical talent has moved the needle but the vast differences in how talent moves within the world. 
Sacha Jenkins‘ film delivers a comprehensive look at the life of the trumpeter lovingly referred to as “Pops,” ranging from his beginnings as a founding father of jazz to his stints in Hollywood as an actor. But by mining out a large array of archive footage, Jenkins crafts a more full-bodied picture of an artist that is perhaps only known to a younger generation as the gravelly singer of “What a wonderful world.” 
‘Black & Blues’ might feel unremarkable to some. In terms of its information, the film could audibly be a radio documentary. However, the sheer number of old images of the man they called Satchmo and those around him shouldn’t be sniffed it. Repeatedly, the faded images of older notable luminaries feel increasingly valuable in a world where all imagery is crisp, clear, and ubiquitous. Particularly when considering the number of pictures of more vacuous celebrities of the current era. Something here feels less “put on,” even though the image of Armstrong is one cultivated by the musician himself. 
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Growing up in an era of rampant and unremitting racism, ‘Black & Blues’ highlights Armstrong’s image as considered by some to belong to the Uncle Tom stereotype: a forever smiling crooner used to placate white America. However, the archive footage, previously unreleased, highlights Armstrong as a man with a strong survivalist nature. An early moment of the film speaks about Armstrong’s acute awareness of what was going on in the world, despite not always contributing a public opinion. It’s easy to consider this as somewhat submissive; however, ‘Black & Blues’ manages to highlight that Louis’ persona allowed him to break barriers that others perhaps could not. The film notes James Baldwin appreciating Armstrong’s rendition of Star-Spangled Banner as the “first time he ever liked that song,” pointing to the complexity of the song’s connotations through an African American lens. 
There’s a delicacy in the filmmaking that understands that Armstrong was no firebrand or civil rights activist in the same way as some of his peers. But Jenkins makes a strong case for Black People not being a monolithic hive mind. When Armstrong felt it possible to speak out, he spoke. Amusingly, Armstrong could be considered the first black podcaster, recording hours upon hours of conversations with his friends about life, seemingly having the foresight that people would want to know his views after he left the world. Charitable acts such as providing coal to those who need it, are recorded. However, perhaps the most poignant moment is watching actor Ossie Davis recall one moment when Armstrong takes the happy performer mask off during a break in filming. Davis, who admits to seeing Armstrong as an Uncle Tom, is suddenly struck by the lack of a façade, realizing that Armstrong perhaps carried on his shoulders a burden that allowed the angry activists to make their case. 
There’s a strong use of influence in the film’s form. Letters written by Armstrong are narrated by Nas. The choice doesn’t feel as if it’s just down to the similar raspy voice that the rapper inhabits. While Nas’ slightly aggressive delivery of Louis’ words may at first feel strange, the knowledge of Nas’ father being the jazz musician Olu Dara, feels like a strong indication of Jenkins bridging the gap in terms of musical imprint. 
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” is certainly what is expected of a musical documentary of its type. Unfortunately, we have no present-day footage of any of the talking heads. And while Louis Armstrong’s influence is cited as so important that “any American pop artist that’s uttered a sound on a record in the last 90 years” is touched by him, the film doesn’t utilize any popular present-day recording artists to add even more depth to proceedings. Yet the film’s potency lies in Armstrong being his own man, using his talent to break records and barriers while remaining a person of his principles. [B-]

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