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A new documentary sheds light on Louis Armstrong's secret daughter

Daniel Caudill

Little Satchmo will screen at the Crown Uptown Theater as part of the Wichita Jazz Festival.

The film Little Satchmo, about the secret daughter of Louis Armstrong — the godfather of jazz — is screening Thursday night as part of the Wichita Jazz Festival's 50th-anniversary events. KMUW's Carla Eckels speaks with Armstrong's only daughter, Sharon Preston-Folta.

Interview Highlights

Your mother was very intentional in making sure when [Louis Armstrong] would come to town, you were in a pretty dress and your patent leather shoes.

It was, you know, "Your dad is coming!" We have to put on our best because we had such little time with him. It was always, "look our best, be on our best behavior." It was more like company coming — not your parents — but someone that you have more of an intimate relationship with. So, I enjoyed it because it was special. But then because it was so short and limited, that was the part that was a little sad.

Is there anything that you remember in particular that he would say to you when you would see him?

Well, he always asked if I was a good girl, and he would chuckle. He would always ask about school. I was taking music lessons when I got older. So, he would ask how they were going. And every once in a while, I would play something for him, not that great, but I would play the piano and the accordion and the guitar. And then I also learned the clarinet. I learned the trumpet and the French horn and some percussions because I grew up in a town called Vernon, New York, where they had — in the summers — opportunities for the kids to go learn multiple instruments. We called it summer band school, but it was a summer music and arts program.

Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter and vocalist playing at the Savoy Hotel, London.
Getty Images
Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter and vocalist playing at the Savoy Hotel, London.

Now your father, he paid for your schooling.

He paid for everything. He supported us 100 percent. My mother did not work until maybe five years after he passed away. He supported my mother before I was born, during, and then there was money left after that supported us.

When your father died in 1971, President Richard Nixon said in a statement: "Mrs. Nixon and I share the sorrow of millions of Americans at the death of Louis Armstrong. One of the architects of an American art form, a free and individual spirit, and an artist of worldwide fame, his great talent and magnificent spirit added richness and pleasure to all our lives." Do you remember wanting to reveal that he was your father at that time?

You know, it was really [tough] not doing it, but I just felt that my mother — she was just so guarded with that secret. And it was just something that she said we just could not share. So, it was difficult. But thankfully my family knew and there were a few of my classmates that knew. And so, we were able to talk to some people, but it was tough.

What has it been like to tour with the movie? What's been the reaction?

I'm so pleased. People love the treatment of how the film unfolds because it's not your typical documentary. It takes you on an emotional journey. You put yourself in the film and see it through my eyes. People are relating to it in a way where they are applauding me for finding my voice, thanking me for speaking up, seen for some people opportunities for them to speak up. And then also people who are big fans of my father's music, tell me how his music affected them.

The love of jazz you inherited from your dad inspired you to produce a public radio show yourself in Tampa, Florida. What other legacies do you think you have from your father?

I would say that I'm in the family business now because my mother was a Black vaudeville dancer, my father, "Mr. Show Business." So, I think now with bringing the film forward and executive producing that and writing my memoir, I have just taken that natural ability to tell a story or portray a story.

And I felt that my father — when you watched him perform — he wasn't just standing there singing a song. He was the song, and he was the lyrics. And in his spare time, he loved to write letters. So, he just saw the beauty in the ordinary and he would just write about it, and he would also record himself talking about it.

Little Satchmo will screen on Thursday, April 21, at the Crown Uptown Theater as part of the Wichita Jazz Festival. The film will be followed by a Q&A with Sharon Preston-Folta.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.