Louis Armstrong, the jazz icon who left a legacy of joy and wholesomeness, was long thought to have died without any children to pass his legacy onto. In the documentary Little Satchmo, however, viewers are given ample evidence that proves otherwise. In an up-close-and-personal recount of her upbringing as the estranged daughter of Louis Armstrong, Sharon Preston-Folta tells all, reshaping the way we think of the beloved “Satchmo”, the complicated life he lived, and the impact of his actions on his loved ones.
In 1955, Louis had a secret love affair with Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer from Harlem. The product of this love affair was our documentary’s narrator, Sharon Preston-Folta, or as Louis called her, “Little Satchmo”. With the promise of financial support, marriage, and an eventual future together as a family, Sweets clung to Louis faithfully. But as the years went by, it became more and more apparent that their relationship was not meant to be, and that besides financial support and the occasional visit, Louis would never truly be in their lives the way they wanted him to be. The reason for Louis’ absence was simple: he was the most beloved black man in white American society and had an image to uphold. To announce to the world that he had a mistress and a daughter born out of wedlock would have been career suicide. And so Armstrong kept his family hidden from the world, his mistress and daughter playing along in the secret-keeping in order to protect him. It isn’t until decades after Armstrong’s death, and after her entire lifetime, that Preston-Folta has built up the courage to tell her truth and her father’s truth.
The documentary opens with a familiar gravelly voice being played on a cassette tape. Louis is addressing Sweets and his daughter, charisma oozing from the cassette tape. This is one of the many tape messages that they would receive from Louis during his tour-related travels, in fact, one of the only forms of communication that he would have with them. It’s quite a feat to hear Louis’ voice, not in song form but rather in the form of a personal message--- it feels like something we, the viewers, are not supposed to be hearing. That’s probably because we were never meant to hear these messages in the first place, or listen to his old personal letters being read out. It is only by Preston-Folta’s candidness that we are given access to a never-before-seen dimension of Louis personality, one besides being a smiling trumpet-playing jazz man.
In his messages to his family, he sounds as endearing and paternal as possible, like someone who wanted to be a family man. “He always wanted to be a father,” says Preston, but as someone who grew up without a father himself, Louis had no way of knowing how to be one. The physical presence that he held in his daughter’s life was reduced to his many TV performances, which the young Preston-Folta would watch religiously, and through his records which would be played throughout the house. “It was the music that deluded me into thinking my father was around more than he actually was,” she remarks.
Throughout the documentary, Preston-Folta recounts the many moments of heartbreak that sprouted from her dysfunctional relationship with her father. It’s clear, however, that she is not broken from her experiences. Though the stories themselves are upsetting, she is able to tell them in a way that is poised and matter-of-factual. It’s clear that she’s made peace with the complicated reality of her upbringing, and through her compelling storytelling, she’s able to seamlessly bring the viewers into her world. Despite Louis’ short-comings as a father, she does not paint him as a villain, but rather as a man trying to be a father in the only way he knew--- by providing financially, which allowed Preston-Folta to be brought up in an upper-middle class lifestyle. The documentary also allows us to empathize with Armstrong, who was trying to do right by white society at a time where being a successful black man was a rarity, and any mistake made would have been costly.
Armstrong was a legend whose audience spanned across continents, one of the most important figures in jazz to date. But above all he was also human, and he has a daughter who is alive and ready to be heard. This is the perfect documentary for lovers of jazz, celebrity scandals, or anyone who’s come across the music of Louis Armstrong, father of jazz trumpet, father of Little Satchmo.
Little Satchmo screens at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 18th.
The film will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Sharon Preston-Folta will be present at the In-Person screening to do a Q+A after the showing.
To buy tickets go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022/play/62b9b8da105526007dfc091d
For General Info on the Film Festival go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022