“Other times, when the record ended, and the needle crackled against the wax, the silence would take over. It was deafening.”
— Sharon Preston-Folta, in Little Satchmo
For years, Sharon Preston-Folta was a secret.
She had a father she adored — but she had to share him with the world, and without anyone knowing.
Preston-Folta is the only child of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. The trumpet virtuoso from the Big Easy was the most famous Black man in the world in his day, and one of the most famous musicians.
Between his nights in the spotlight, his hours on the road and stolen moments with his many lovers (and wives), Armstrong was a father who adored his daughter.
The documentary Little Satchmo officially opens the Denton Black Film Festival on Thursday.
The virtual festival will present the film for streaming at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, followed by a livestream Q&A and panel discussion at 8:15 p.m. Because the festival is virtual this year, all films will be streamed, and they’ll have until the end of the day Feb. 6 to watch their selections.
Director John Alexander met Preston-Folta through his producer, Lea Umberger, who gave him a copy of Preston-Folta’s 2021 memoir, Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of My Father, Louis Daniel Armstrong. Umberger and Preston-Folta met through a festival in Florida, where Preston-Folta works in media sales for National Public Radio.
“We’d been working together on this event for three years when I handed her the book and said, ‘Now you should know more about me and where I came from,’” Preston-Folta said.
Alexander said he read the book in one sitting. Then he connected with Preston-Folta and discussed making a film with her and Umberger. He said soon he felt like he’d known his subject for years.
“The heart of this story, for me, is the little girl that Sharon really was, and this little girl who is still in her who loved her daddy — missed her daddy. And he missed her,” he said. “She didn’t know he was a superstar, that he had a wife and a public life.
“To tell this story, I was putting myself in that little girl’s shoes, being home alone and waiting for your daddy to come see you again, playing with the toys he would bring in a stocking. She would dance and listen to his music. She had his shirt — a Hawaiian shirt. She would sway with it.”
Preston-Folta was born in New York City’s Harlem to Lucille “Sweets” Preston, who was a dancer at the Cotton Club. Preston was married to a lanky dancer, Luther “Slim” Preston. He died, and Preston-Folta’s mother started a romance with Armstrong. Their affair lasted 20 years.
“I was somewhat conscious of it,” Preston-Folta said. “A lot of my seeing him was through media and seeing him on stage. We were fortunate enough to travel with him. From ages 3, 4 and 5, I would be at the hotel and see all the fuss around him. He had what I thought of a manservant — a valet. He’d get off the bus and people would be around him.”
There were long periods where her only contact with him was through letters and reel-to-reel audio recordings.
“I’d pick up a magazine and there he was,” she said. “I would say even past my teen years, going in to adulthood, that’s when I came to understand how big he was. I’m still learning it.”
Little Satchmo is quietly confrontational about its central conflict. Even as adultery is both romanticized and forgiven in everything from epic love stories to pop music, so much about infidelity unfolds like abuse: the secrecy, the honeymoon periods of intimacy broken by silence and retreat. And the children born out of double lives — Preston-Folta remembers a childhood marked by longing for her father and hearing her mother cry. They had all the money they needed. But they didn’t have Armstrong all the way.
In one gutting scene in the film, Preston-Folta holds a photo of her father with a little white girl on his lap. The little girl’s grin is matched by the famous Satchmo smile. Armstrong, who sent rafts of letters and hours of audio tapes to his daughter, never took a photo with her.
In another scene, she confronts her mother about the shock of learning her father has a whole other life on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Her mother tells her something that can only besmirch her paramour in her child’s eyes — that it was his wife standing between Preston-Folta and a father who stays. When the great Satchmo died in 1971, neither Preston-Folta nor her mother were permitted to attend his New Orleans funeral.
Preston-Folta decided to write her memoir when she saw the truth in black and white: an amendment to her father’s will, declaring that Armstrong never had or adopted any children.
Little Satchmo doesn’t excuse infidelity. Alexander said making a documentary about a powerful man having a secret family hits different as social narratives around adultery adopt more critical and challenging postures.
“That was the chief concern upon entering that territory,” Alexander said. “I didn’t want to make it seem like we were going to be tearing this beloved figure down. This account brings forth a new level of complexity to our supposedly beloved Louis Armstrong. It actually humanizes him. He was more than the caricature we reduced him to. He was more than this happy-go-lucky Black man with a trumpet, big chief Satchmo with a trumpet. Nobody asked if there was anything more.”
Alexander said the memoir laid the groundwork for the film.
“Sharon’s memoir set the stage for me. She had already put that out there, what she was comfortable saying. That was a big step,” he said. “She was ready. She wanted to bring this out. And the timing was right for me.”
The film Little Satchmo chronicles Preston-Folta’s life, running on a sort of parallel track to Armstrong’s. And when he died after a heart attack when Preston-Folta was 16, it had been several years since she’d seen or spoken to him.
Preston-Folta said she understands that her memoir and the documentary will challenge the image some have of her father. After all, she still meets people who tell her they walked down the aisle to Armstrong’s best-known song, “What a Wonderful World.”
“If this tarnishes him, just understand it’s tarnishing an image that you had of him. Which is unrealistic — he wasn’t superhuman,” Preston-Folta said. “He was wonderful and talented and brilliant. But he was human. So why have him be put on a pedestal? I say to people who might struggle with this that this takes away nothing from the person my father was. It just adds to it. Why would a child tarnish someone’s memory?”