Sharon Preston-Folta on her father Louis Armstrong’s legacy: ‘With all of his greatness, he was human’

Louis Armstrong was known for many things when it comes to his music: natural creativity, showmanship, sense of humour, incredible ear, strong entertainment sensibility — the list goes on and on.

In 2012, thanks to a book called Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of My Father – Louis Daniel Armstrong, Sharon Preston-Folta let the world in on another role for which Louis was lesser known: that of a father.

Preston-Folta is Louis Armstrong’s only child, but she had to keep her existence a secret because Louis was married to another woman during the time that he had a two-decade affair with Sharon’s mother, Lucille Preston. That ended when her book was published, and now, more people will learn of this other side of Louis’s life with the release of Little Satchmo, the documentary based on Preston-Folta’s memoir.

Preston-Folta and director John Alexander joined us to share more about that story.

How did the documentary come about?

Preston-Folta: I work as an account executive for a public radio station in Tampa, and one of my clients was [Lea Umberger], the director of a festival. She and I became very friendly, and I gave her a copy of the book. Two years later, she called me and told me she had met a director and producer — a husband and wife team, Crook and Nanny Productions — who had just done a film and featured it at a documentary festival here. She said she wanted to ask them if they’d be part of the project and produce my film.

John, what was your impression when you first heard about this project?

Alexander: My first impression was one of disbelief. I was very skeptical at the beginning: What do you mean, Louis Armstrong’s daughter? He didn’t have any children. I thought I was the authority on Louis Armstrong, as we all feel, having claimed him as an American icon. Turns out I couldn’t have been further from the truth. I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know anything about his personal life. I only knew the legends from New Orleans and the stereotypical caricature reduction of Louis Armstrong. I didn’t know about Louis Daniel Armstrong, the person. I didn’t know about his desires, his secrets. I realized that that was really a loss for American culture. We think we understand somebody, but we don’t. If we’re actually interested in who this person is, maybe we should dig a little deeper and find out. When I first read Sharon’s memoir, it was like being run over by a bus. I couldn’t even believe what was hitting me. Sharon’s voice came through so strongly in the book. I wanted to preserve that voice and perspective on this story, and to get it out there and amplify it more.

From listening to the trailer, hearing Sharon speak about it — your openness, your honesty — how do you feel now that everything is being revealed in this way? In the film, we get to hear recordings, look at photos. How does it feel for you to have this part of your life finally opened up?

Preston-Folta: I have to pinch myself and realize that in my childhood, I had to keep everything clamped down. Now, I speak about it so freely, it’s a relief. I actually feel lighter. I still carry the sadness of what was. I’m sad for myself and my mother, and also my father, that we really missed out on each other. But as an adult, I really take a look at what we did have, and that helped me to bring the story forward and celebrate what we did have, and lay it out and know that I’m not the only one who carries family secrets, disappointments, the loss of a parent. That voice is the voice of many people. With that, I feel complete and very satisfied.

Did both of you discuss this — what Sharon’s feelings might be once it was all out there?

Alexander: Not really. We sort of hoped and prayed individually. I was very clear at the beginning that I wanted to not tamper with Sharon’s telling of this story. I wanted it to be direct from the source. We did have conversations where I was basically shutting down ideas to bring other people into the project. We did not want interviews. We did not want other experts weighing in on Sharon’s perspective, because the way I viewed it was that Sharon actually lived this. There will be skeptics. People will ask, what about DNA tests? What about this and that? Fine. The reality is that Sharon lived this life, and she’s the only person who’s an authority on that subject. I wanted to preserve her voice. But in terms of how Sharon would feel at the premieres, I’m pleasantly relieved and surprised that everything is going so well and that so many people of all generations and all backgrounds are coming up to Sharon and me to say how inspirational this story is and how it resonates with them.

Preston-Folta: The one thing that I wanted — knowing that the story would have a life of its own — was to get it out and be authentic. That was the one thing I communicated, and they got it. From there, I pretty much had been hands-off. The beauty of it is that for [all] of us being strangers doing our part, it’s all come together as if we’d known each other and worked together for years. That’s the gift.

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Can you tell us about the music that’s involved in this film?

Alexander: Eddie Korvin, the legendary composer and recording engineer, is a dear friend of mine and a close collaborator. I knew right away that if we were doing anything vaguely Louis Armstrong-related that I needed Eddie. What a godsend Eddie has been, editorially and musically. Such a quiet but strong presence. He wrote an original song called Song for Sharon. It’s teased in samples and motifs throughout the film and then it comes to a full blossom at the end. He got Wycliffe Gordon involved in that, along with some other great artists. That’s the highlighted original piece. Other than that, it’s a lot of Louis Armstrong material that Eddie helped curate, and we weighed in with our preferences and came up with a sound that’s representative of Sharon’s father and her story.

Sharon, do you ever wonder about how this will have Louis perceived? As John mentioned, we all feel like we know him but we didn’t. Do you worry about people thinking of him differently? How do you feel?

Preston-Folta: I’m hoping that they perceive him differently, because the image that’s out there is not of a complete human. No one is that saint. No one is. I want people to know that with all of his greatness, he was human and he did have flaws, he did the best that he could, and that he did love us in his way, whether I agreed that it was enough or that it was the way it should have been. I hope that people do perceive him as a complete human being now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.