louis armstrongs last laugh

Louis Armstrong’s Last Laugh

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The tapes are thrilling, revelatory, wrenching: the warm-gravel voice of Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most famous voice of the 20th century, speaking harsh truths about American racism, about the dehumanizing hatred he and millions of others endured in a world he still, to the end, insisted was wonderful. He tells the stories — of a fan declaring “I don’t like Negroes” to his face; of a gofer on a film set treating him with disrespect no white star would face — with fresh outrage and can-you-believe-this? weariness.

He also tells them with his full humor and showmanship, his musicality clear in the rhythm of his swearing.

The public can hear these stories, privately recorded by Armstrong as part of his own lifelong project of self-documentation, in the Sacha Jenkins documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” (streaming on Apple TV+). Often, Armstrong recalls getting the last laugh on those who disrespected him — he harangues that gofer, and the studio, too, telling both where to stick their movie.

It’s no revelation that a Black man born less than 40 years after the abolition of slavery endured harrowing racism, or that stardom on par with Bing Crosby’s and Frank Sinatra’s offered him no exemption. Armstrong faced blowback in 1957 for speaking against discrimination, and donated to the Civil Rights movement. Usually, though, he avoided controversy.

By the 1960s, Armstrong’s reticence — as well as that wide-grinning, eye-rolling performance style that echoes minstrelsy — inspired backlash, most painfully among younger jazz musicians who revered his recordings of the 1920s, the very headwaters of jazz.

That backlash has been exhaustively hashed over ever since, with critics often dividing the Armstrong legacy in two. On the one hand: the young genius-artist-virtuoso, who perfected the arts of swing, scat singing, and improvisational solos, hitting trumpet notes so high they tickled God’s toes. On the other: the global entertainer with hits in six decades and a penchant for sentimental pop and discomfiting tunes like “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”

Well into this millennium, defenses of Armstrong’s later years have been, well, defensive. But Jenkins’s film, following the lead of Ricky Riccardi’s 2012 biography “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years,” draws deeply on the Armstrong archives to make an assertive argument, often in Armstrong’s own words, that the man called Pops was deeply committed to the cause of racial justice.

“The Armstrong story has been in plain sight for so many years — and been so misunderstood for many years,” Jenkins said in a Zoom interview. “America’s going through something. In many ways, things haven’t changed, and in many ways things have gone backward.”

At the same time of the film’s release, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, is preparing for its 20th anniversary and the opening this spring of its new Louis Armstrong Center. The museum’s executive director, Regina Bain, said that the center will exponentially increase the museum’s educational outreach, a core mission with roots in Armstrong’s own development — he was given his first formal musical training as an adolescent at the Colored Waifs Home for Boys in New Orleans. The center also will host concerts, exhibit the Armstrong archives and showcase its Armstrong Now program, which puts artists in dialogue with Armstrong’s legacy.

Bain acknowledged that legacy’s complexity. “When you look at him,” she said by phone, “you should see what most people see: an icon and a musical genius with a gorgeous smile and an effusive personality full of joy. And you should also see the racial terror that he and the people around him went through, and affected his life and body, and that he was still able to move through.”

“It’s extremely important to tell your story in a way that doesn’t have any tainting or tampering,” said Jeremy Pelt, one of today’s top trumpeters, composers and bandleaders, in a phone interview. He’s published two books of interviews with Black jazz musicians (“Griot” volumes 1 and 2) for just this reason. “To be able to expose yourself, and deal with what you’ve gone through — it’s essential and freeing, even in the last chorus of your life.”

For 23 years, David Ostwald has led the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, playing weekly gigs at Birdland. Ostwald has long championed Armstrong as a pioneer of civil rights, making the case in a 1991 New York Times guest essay that Armstrong, as early as 1929, actually did address race in his music. His example: “Black & Blue,” the song on which Jenkins’s film title riffs. On it, Armstrong sings, “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case / ’cause I can’t hide what is in my face.”

Asked how he feels to see that argument going mainstream, Ostwald released a whoop. “Finally,” he said.

Ostwald credited Wynton Marsalis with having made Armstrong “OK again” in the jazz world. In the film, Marsalis describes growing up hating “with an unbelievable passion” the “Uncle Tomming” that Armstrong has often been accused of. But listening closely to Armstrong’s trumpet jolted Marsalis, the future artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who has since championed Armstrong. In the documentary, he says that Armstrong “was trying to use his music to transform and reform and lead the country closer to his ideals.”

Armstrong’s musical legacy has likewise been contested. His solos, especially from the 1920s, have long been celebrated — in one of Pelt’s “Griot” interviews, the saxophonist J.D. Allen says that for jazz players, “all roads lead back to Pops.” But Ostwald recalled being regarded as “weird” for playing traditional and old-time jazz in New York in the 1970s and ’80s. “People were saying the music’s going to die, but I always felt that Armstrong was too powerful a force to ever go away, even if some people did misunderstand him.”

Today, young musicians feel increasingly free to find inspiration throughout Armstrong’s career. Like most Juilliard jazz graduates, the up-and-coming trombonist, composer and bandleader Kalia Vandever studied Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings of the 1920s. But she also prizes his 1950s duets with Ella Fitzgerald: “I love the way that he transitions from singing into playing,” she said. “It’s seamless and sounds like one voice.” Listen to Vandever’s playing on her “Regrowth” album, and you may feel the connection, though the music sounds nothing like “Heebie Jeebies.”

With each fresh look at Armstrong’s life and influence, perhaps the old artist/entertainer distinction is fading. In a video introduction shown before the deeply moving tour at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Bain offers, with welcome precision, a third way to think about Armstrong: as “one of the founding figures of jazz and America’s first Black popular music icon.” The message: He’s both. And both matter.