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BWW Review: LITTLE SATCHMO at Sarasota Film Festival

The Story of Louis Armstrong's Secret Daughter

BWW Review: LITTLE SATCHMO at Sarasota Film Festival

Sharon Preston-Folta's documentary feature, Little Satchmo, is the heartwarming and heart-wrenching story of her journey as the secret daughter of legendary jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

Louis Daniel Armstrong, nicknamed "Satchmo", had an illustrious career that spanned five decades. Due to his unique music styling, charisma, and gritty vocals, he is credited with changing the focus of jazz music from "collective improvisation" to solo performance. With an eye for the ladies, Armstrong had several failed marriages but remained with his fourth wife Lucille Wilson until his death in 1971. During his marriage to Wilson, Armstrong had a long time affair with Lucille Preston. Together they had a daughter, Sharon, who Louis lovingly called "Little Satchmo". To protect them and his career, Lucille and Sharon lived in the shadows of his limelight.

The film is director John Alexander's adaptation of Sharon's memoir of the same name and escorts the audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as you come to understand the young girl who was tasked with suppressing a very big secret well into adulthood. For fear of losing his career by having a baby out of wedlock with his mistress, Armstrong had to deny Sharon's existence. Little Satchmo draws you into Sharon's intimate point of view, as it weaves in and out of vintage pictures, tape recordings, letters, and videos of Armstrong, complimented by visuals of Sharon adding heartfelt, honest commentary and special remembrances.

Seeing "daddy" through the eyes of his secret daughter is endearing to watch. It is clear that as a child keeping this secret didn't bother Sharon much, as they were together frequently. However, as she grew up it became harder to accept. There was no doubt Armstrong loved Lucille, his muse, and Sharon and deeply cared for them. Privately he acknowledged her, doted over her, and took responsibility for her welfare. But you can't help but hurt for her watching a scene where Armstrong being interviewed on a televised talk show is asked if he has children. With him publicly making that denial, my heart sunk. It made me stop and think, what if that was my father denying my existence. How would I feel? The film balances that injustice by showing another side of Armstrong who provided well for Sharon and Lucille, came to visit them on occasion, and sometimes would take them on the road with him. I found myself torn wanting to be upset with Armstrong who made empty promises to someday marry Lucille Preston and wanting to give him credit for taking care of his secret little family. I almost wanted to know more about Satchmo and his relationships. But don't fall into that rabbit hole. This is not about him. This is Little Satchmo's story. This is her time. Throughout this film, there are no calls for pity. There are no mean-spirited arrows pointed toward Armstrong. There is a call for justice and setting the record straight.

I don't want to give a lot away here. I want to encourage readers to see the film; even read the book. I felt this story added a human touch to a legend we all came to admire. I heard attendees at the Sarasota Film Festival who, after viewing this film, comment on the integrity of the film and the gentle ways these hard truths were revealed. I agree. There were many different directions this film could have taken. It was not light and fluffy. It wasn't an assassination of character. It was one women's journey who built up the courage to come forward and make things right, state her truth, and in doing so, I am sure, will empower many others to embrace their own.

Sharon took some time for an interview for our BroadwayWorld audience. Here are some answers in her own words.

Keeping your existence as Louis Armstrong's daughter must have been so difficult for you. When did you come to understand he was your father and who he was to the world?

I always knew who my father was from the time I could walk and talk. My father would spend time mother and me at our home and we traveled with him on the road every summer from the time I was a toddler until age seven when he bought a home for us in Mt. Vernon, NY. He would come to our home when he was able.

Did you accept the fact that you had to keep your identity secret or plead with your mother to allow you to tell at least one friend?

I accepted it because my mother made it absolutely clear it was for our safety because, quote "your father is a big man'. But my family, aunts, uncles, and cousins all knew and at times, were at our home when my father came to visit.

After watching your father on a televised show, did you and your mother talk about it or go about your life without comments of his performance, how he looked, how it made you feel, etc.?

We were just excited to see him on TV, in a magazine or in person. We were just happy for any opportunity to be with him in any way.

It must have been devastating to hear your father on a talk show declare he had no children. You wee to remain invisible for many years.

Was this the catalyst for your book and film?

The catalyst of my book was the fact that I didn't fully understand WHY I was invisible from his life. Because he went through great lengths to support and provide for my mother and me, he made it clear to us, through his care and his writings to us and his manager, that he loved us and was proud of us.

Why was Louis Armstrong afraid to admit he had a child out of wedlock? His wife at the time knew of you and your mother. Was it a fear of losing his career?

Yes, there was a real fear of losing his career and damaging his reputation.

The world of the 1950's wasn't kind to their stars and icons that stepped out of the norm of what was expected of them. African American stars and icons had the added burden of fighting racism, segregation, and being seen as a people. His wife knew of my mother and his many, many love affairs, one night stands he had throughout their marriage and she accepted it. Another factor was my father's manager, Joe Glaser advised him not to leave his wife. Louis and Joe had a very tight bond. They understood and respected each other. My father always followed Mr. Glaser's advice.

Do you have a favorite song or performance of your father's?

I love hearing his version of 'When It's Sleeping Time Down South' because he always sang it at the opening of his live performances. Seeing him perform in person was some of the best memories of my childhood. Just like his audiences, he made me happy. It was magical. Another of my favorite songs is his version of 'La Vie En Rose'.

Was there any discussion with you about Lucille Wilson, your father's wife, wanting to adopt you? How did that play out?

My mother told me that when I was born, Lucille wanted to adopt me but my mother said absolutely not. It was never an option for my mother.

Now that your book, Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of My Father, and your documentary Little Satchmo is public, was the end project cathartic for you, painful, or maybe both?

Both, but I'm so thankful that I was able to come to a place of acceptance in my heart for the good, bad, and ugly of my life. I now understand that my parents did the best they knew how to do. It's helped me to love and forgive them and myself.

Was it difficult bringing your memories into the written word and preparing it for the big screen? Did you ever want to quit and just let go of either of these projects?

It was painful at times but I had made my decision to tell my story and was ready to face the difficult moments. Like with anything that's difficult, there are times when you want to give up but I was determined to live in my truth and come to terms with my past.

In the film you quoted your father talking about waiting in his tour bus, ready to perform at a venue as two white boys walked by. One was impressed with the bus and that your father was in town, exclaiming to the other boy, "this is Louis Armstrong's bus". The other boy downplayed his friend's excitement by stating, "so what, he's just another n--ger". Your father broke a lot of racial barriers with his music, his style, and his love of humanity. Did you speak further with your father about this comment?

We never spoke about it after his comment.

Other than letters and pictures, do you have a treasured keepsake of your father's: a tie, shirt, trumpet?

I had photos, show programs, and tape recordings from him. All of my items, except for a couple of pictures, have been donated to the Library of Congress.

What do you want readers of your book and viewers of your film to take away from these projects?

That you can't run away from your life and that your life matters. You may choose to ignore your truth but it won't change who you are or your circumstances.

You have been through so much since childhood, what is one lesson in life you would like to depart to those reading this interview.

Choosing one thing, I would emphasize that 'your voice matters'. Speak up for yourself and be proud of who you are.

You are a woman of faith. How has your faith helped you through tough times?

Because I know God is with me always and He answers my prayers. I believe and call on His wisdom to guide me through my daily life.

Little Satchmo was written and directed by John Alexander and produced by Lea Umberger and JC Guest, with Sharon Preston-Folta as narrator. For more information visit www.littlesatchmodoc.com.

Sharon Preston-Folta is a resident of Sarasota, Florida and for the past nine years has worked for NPR's affiliate, WUSF Tampa. In the spirit of full disclosure, Sharon is a volunteer with JFCS of the Suncoast, (Jewish Family & Children's Service), who is my employer.


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