“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”: worthy of its monumental theme

There are great artists, and then there are artists of such titanic power that they are literally changing the world. I think of Shakespeare, Leonardo, Dostoyevsky, Picasso. Louis Armstrong sits in this Olympic plane. Yet he is the rare example of an artist whose fame, image, and media mythology can actually obscure his revolutionary greatness as a creator. When he first rose to prominence in the ’20s and early ’30s, the Armstrong revolution could be heard in every note he played or sang. He blew the trumpet in a blistering upper register, hitting high Cs that would have audiences talking for days, but it’s not like this is a feat of musical mountain climbing. He was in his own stratosphere, playing from the sky. Each note vibrated like a shimmering pearl lit from within. Nobody had sounded like that; nobody had ordered like that.

Directed by Sacha Jenkins, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is a compelling documentary that does justice to the monumental nature of Louis Armstrong’s genius, and one of the film’s tantalizing paradoxes is that Armstrong remains a sacred 20th-century icon throughout the film will likely open many viewers’ eyes – for the first time – to who he really was.

We hear a clip of the late saxophone legend Artie Shaw saying, “I’d say jazz almost came from Louis Armstrong.” That’s true, but even if you look at Armstrong as jazz’s most important innovator, that’s what he invented has, so much bigger. He pioneered the concept of improvisation as we know it. And this was more than a musical invention—it was a personal/existential invention, an analogue of the 20th-century impulse to forge one’s destiny moment by moment. Armstrong created the system the musical imagination through which a musician would now pour out what was in his head and heart.

This became the basis not only of jazz but also of rock ‘n’ roll. When Elvis and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis took the blues and instilled in it an electrified spirit that made it move, bounce and explode, Armstrong showed them the way by getting ahead of them – his music was the blues reconfigured into a complex one form free joy. In the film, jazz legend Archie describes Shepp Armstrong as “the first soloist to break away from Western harmony and reintroduce the melodic and rhythmic elements of African music”. This was the most important musical paradigm shift of the 20th century, and it was Armstrong who drove the locomotive. No wonder he smashed this train through so many barriers. He was the first black artist to open a club, ballroom, radio station, and the first black film 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 sheet of lyrics because he dropped it somewhere on the floor, but the president of OKeh Records, sitting in the booth, ordered him to keep singing. So Armstrong went back to what he’d done as a kid, singing on New Orleans street corners to raise money and inventing tunes without words. In the recording studio it filled that space instantly and it was a beauty. (It was also the prototype for every guitar solo you’ve ever heard.)

But as Armstrong explains with beguiling pride, the art of making something from nothing was an art practiced by African Americans out of necessity. On The Mike Douglas Show in the ’60s, he recalls going to the market as a kid and buying a bundle of fish heads wrapped in newspaper; This was the stuff the fishmongers threw away, so it cost pennies. He took it home, where his mother slowly cooked the fish heads with braised tomatoes, resulting in a succulent feast — and then he took his sandwiches to school the next day, with every kid wanting a bite.

The film vividly captures Armstrong’s youth, how he discovered the cornet while serving an 18-month sentence at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, and how he moved to Storyville’s red-light district (he worked in brothels there), which was what it was seedy musical hearts 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 from the stage. Otherwise he would overwhelm Oliver, who didn’t take long to find out that his protégé was a better player than he was.

Wynton Marsalis, a sly Armstrong bard in Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” is also interviewed at length here, and Marsalis talks about how he didn’t appreciate Armstrong growing up because he couldn’t get over his image. “In New Orleans,” Marsalis recalls, “there was so much of what we call Uncle Tommin’, Dixie and Shufflin’ playing. In my day, I hated that with an incredible 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 those Pops solos?” Marsalis couldn’t play it ; The stamina required was too great – the power to stay in the upper register and the fluid power of those notes. Then he saw the virtuosity. The vision.

One of the revelations of “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” is that it’s about how much of Armstrong’s cheerful public image was a mask of survival. We see plenty of clips of Armstrong on talk shows where he can be submissive (and also, if you really listen to him, quietly aggressive), and there’s a stunning monologue by Ossie Davis, who, like Wynton Marsalis, is merciless about his primal feelings Armstrong. “We knew he could play the horn,” says Davis, “but that didn’t protect him from our spite and ridicule. Everywhere we looked there was old Louis popping sweat, eyes twitching, mouth wide open and grinning from ear to ear, oh my lord. Does his thing for the white man.” Davis didn’t change that mind until 1966, when he was working with Armstrong and Cicely Tyson on the film A Man Called Adam, and one day he met Armstrong on an empty set. Armstrong sat alone, and what Davis saw on his face was an expression of so harried, freezing melancholy that it shook him. He saw that “beneath that gravel voice and that shuffle, beneath that mouth with more teeth than a piano has keys, was a horn that could kill a man.”

Thanks to the archival research Jenkins did, we can get to know this side of Armstrong. The film shows tape recordings of him speaking in private, where he appears like a different man. He curses a blue streak, calls people “motherfuckers”, he tosses the N-word around in a way that lets you feel the ungodly sting of it as well as its transcendence, and he shows you the rage and calculation beneath the picture. Armstrong had to navigate a showbiz world treacherous in its exploitation and in 1932, during his first trip to Europe, he learned that his manager was making £20,000 a week from him while he was getting £100. We hear a tape of Armstrong recalling his reaction to it, and it’s shocking in its deadly defiance. It was then that Armstrong joined Joe Glaser, who became powerful and bullied, becoming his manager and protector. It was an imperfect situation, but Armstrong did what he had to do in an imperfect world. (Navigating was also part of his genius.)

“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” could have gone into more detail about Armstrong’s musical development. It gives a strong taste of his early days but then somehow jumps forward to the ’50s and ’60s when he was already an aging jazz statesman. There’s no mention of how he literally puffed out his lips, leaving them scarred. Still, the film paints a haunting portrait of the terrifying Jim Crow world it came from and the caution and compassion they bred in him. (The first time he played in Baltimore, where it was freezing, he bought 300 sacks of coal for the poor.) And though he never became a civil rights activist, he denounced President Eisenhower in 1957 — and then sent him a telegram asking if Eisenhower would join him to enter Central High in Little Rock during this disastrous integration war. Of course it never happened. But Louis Armstrong knew that his protest was in every note he played. The America he was born into was built on industry, technology and ideology. What Armstrong gave him was the musical pulse of freedom.

https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/louis-armstrongs-black-and-blues-review-1235418043/ “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”: worthy of its monumental theme

Charles Jones

Charles Jones is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Charles Jones joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: charlesjones@24ssports.com.

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