With its syncopated rhythms, explosive melodies and socially-conscious lyrics, jazz’s influence on hip-hop is discernible to anybody who listens closely. That’s why Sacha Jenkins, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in rap and hip-hop, is a fitting director for Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, which began streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday.
Jenkins, known for 2015’s Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion, and 2019’s docuseries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, shifted his focus in 2021 with his documentary Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, which profiles the soul singer. (While James wasn’t a hip-hop musician himself, songs like “Super Freak” have been sampled by MC Hammer, Jay-Z, Gucci Mane and Nicki Minaj, among other artists.)
In his latest endeavor, Jenkins traveled even further back in time to find Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and New York, working hard to cement himself as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters and singers of all time. Black & Blues primarily relies on archival footage, home recordings and personal letters to tell Armstrong’s story. Prolific rapper Nas lends his voice to those letters.
“I told [Nas] that I was making this film, and he says, you know that ‘Wonderful World’ is my favorite song,” Jenkins tells the Upcoming’s Ezelle Alblas. “As soon as he said that, I said okay, I need this guy to be Armstrong’s voice. And it’s just such a distinct, classic voice. When you hear it, you know it’s Nas.”
Jenkins and Nas grew up near each other in New York. “Armstrong reminds me of a lot of people that we grew up with, who had talent, who were funny and charismatic, who didn’t make it,” Jenkins adds. “Nas full well knows people like that because he was one of them himself. So I felt that he would be able to be very effective as a narrator.”
Earlier in his life, Jenkins didn’t see Armstrong as a symbol of civil rights or Black consciousness. “The narrative was, this guy’s a sellout or an Uncle Tom, he’s always smiling for the white man, it’s not really my thing,” Jenkins recounts to Realscreen’s Justin Anderson. “But you learn about the guy, you learn all these things … he’s getting booked in these fancy hotels that don’t cater to or serve or accept Black people, and he says, ‘If I can’t stay, I won’t play.’ That’s activism, that’s making change.”
Black & Blues is named for Armstrong’s cover of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” which “has been called American music’s first bona fide protest song against racial inequality,” wrote the Guardian’s Ed Prideaux in 2020. It’s a fitting name for a film that showcases Armstrong’s commitment to carving out space for Black performers like himself in spaces where white people called the shots. Armstong was, after all, the one who made headlines for saying President Dwight Eisenhower was “two faced,” and had “no guts” after the Arkansas National Guard refused entry to Black students at Little Rock Central High School.
“He’s from New Orleans, he’s born in 1901. That’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from slavery,” Jenkins tells Realscreen. “... And there’s a lot to be said for someone of his stature, coming from where he came from, being able to navigate the world the way that he did.”
With access to a rich collection of private recordings and correspondences—many of them never before seen or heard—Jenkins paints a complicated, nuanced picture of Armstrong in Black & Blues.“Louis made these tapes in his home,” Jenkins tells Realscreen, “documenting his feelings, his conversations with friends and family and candid stuff that you just would not expect to come from the Louis Armstrong that most of us perceive him to be.”