Not entirely wonderful

Published date24 September 2022
Publication titleMix, The
He was a founding father of jazz, a trumpet virtuoso and a gravel-voiced singer revered across the world, with Mack the Knife and Hello, Dolly! among his enduring hits. Yet Louis Armstrong was so focused on how history would judge him that he sought to preserve his own story for posterity by taping his recollections, including about the prejudice he suffered over the colour of his skin

Now the makers of a major documentary on the celebrated musician, nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, have been given unprecedented access to that archive, which includes thousands of hours of previously unheard audio recordings.

On those tapes, Armstrong, who died in 1971, speaks of 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, initially shaking his hand and telling him that he had all his records, before turning on him: ‘‘He said, ‘you know, I don’t like negroes’, right to my face. And so I said ‘well, I admire your goddamn sincerity’. He said, ‘I don’t like negroes but ... you’re one son of a bitch I’m crazy about’.’’

Armstrong laments that the majority of white people ‘‘dislike’’ black people, but they always have one ‘‘that they’re just crazy about’’.

In another clip, he speaks of a crew member who disrespected him, ordering him about during the filming of Glory Alley in 1952. Armstrong told him: ‘‘‘Why you hand me that shit? Cause I’m coloured?’ ... I didn’t appreciate it. I’m just showing you what I go through for no reason.’’

The recordings will be heard in a forthcoming feature documentary, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.

There are so many recordings that it took the film-makers about two years to restore, digitise and transcribe them.

Justin Wilkes, the film’s co-producer, said he had been taken aback at the amount of unknown material: ‘‘Starting in December 1950, Louis purchased a tape recorder and almost religiously would record his daily musings.

‘‘Sometimes it’s just him talking. Sometimes it’s other people, his wife, other musicians. It was all for his own archives. 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 to what he ultimately believed. A lot of his inner emotions come through...

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