Not a wonderful world: Louis Armstrong tapes reveal how racism scarred his life and career

Audio diaries including previously unheard material tell of the jazz giant’s anger over the prejudice he faced

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, which will be released this autumn following its premiere this week at the Toronto international film festival.

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 and president of Imagine Documentaries, told the Observer that 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 on the tapes. All those tapes have been sitting in this archive.

“We have the only film footage of a recording session of him. We also have out-takes of certain songs that haven’t been heard before.

“Race is the number one topic that he’s grappling with, and contemplating his entire life as a black man growing up in America in the 20th century… On the one hand, he’s literally the most famous person in the world… and then, at the same time, there are still hotels where he can’t walk in the front door [and] restaurants that won’t seat him because of the colour of his skin. As you can imagine, he feels very strongly about this, but sometimes tempers what he says publicly.”

Wilkes said that only a “small group of jazz historians” have been aware of the archive, owned by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which transformed his house in Queens, New York, into a museum.

In a music business dominated by white businessmen, Armstrong recalls in one tape challenging his manager for taking the lion’s share of his earnings: “I said, ‘You might be my manager and you might be the biggest shit and book me in the biggest places in the world... But when I get out on that… stage with that horn and get in trouble, you can’t save me.”

Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections for the Armstrong museum and a consulting producer on the film, said: “For much of his career, fans around the world responded to the love and warmth Louis radiated on stage but, by the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of his African American fans began thinking of him as a relic, someone who wasn’t up on the civil rights movement, someone who was afraid to speak out because he was so beloved by whites. I’m hoping this film blows those notions totally out of the water.

“Hearing him in his own words – hearing hurt, hearing pain, hearing him curse – is going to be the first time many folks have ever experienced this side of Louis Armstrong. What’s important is that he is the one who left behind these tapes, so he really wanted this side to be known.

“It’s taken 51 years after his passing to get there.”

Directed by Emmy-nominated Sacha Jenkins, Apple Original Films is presenting the production by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries in association with Polygram Entertainment.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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