At a screening of his documentary “This is Love,” about Wichita native and R&B singer Rudy Love, a few years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida, Shawn Rhodes was approached by a woman named Sharon Preston -Folta.
The woman introduced herself and told her story.
“She expressed interest in making a movie out of her book,” Rhodes recalled. “How many times does Louis Armstrong’s secret daughter come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I want you to make a movie out of my book’?”
This film, “Little Satchmo”, will be screened this week at Crown Uptown as part of the Wichita Jazz Festival. Preston-Folta will attend and participate in a Q&A after the screening Thursday night.
The festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Preston-Folta was the only child of Armstrong, a beloved jazz legend as a trumpeter and singer, but was born to his mistress, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
Armstrong acknowledged paternity, his daughter said.
“Early on when mom was pregnant and I was first born, he sent letters, one of which is in the Library of Congress,” Preston-Folta said in a joint Zoom interview with Rhodes, based in Wichita. “It wasn’t just about being a dad and how cute I was, but how he impregnated my mom.”
Armstrong’s fourth wife was also aware of the situation.
“Lucille Armstrong agreed,” Preston-Folta said. “At first she was the one sending us the checks, then they started coming out of her booking office.”
The monthly checks, she said, were “financial support from my father that would give me a middle-class education, with a home, schools and activities.”
Her father would love her when she saw him. She and her mother accompanied Armstrong on several tours.
“I was always told he was on the road and working and would be with us as much as he could, but that was because of his job,” she said. , “not because we were a family apart from his public life.”
Now 66, Preston-Folta was 10 when she realized her place in her legacy.
“At 10, seeing your world shattered — everything you ever knew was basically a lie, a lie of omission, but still a lie — and no one explaining or comforting you, that moment is pretty dramatic,” he says. she.
Armstrong died in 1971, but Preston-Folta and her mother were not allowed to attend her funeral.
“The emotional trauma of having to keep this a secret as a child and seeing my mum and dad’s relationship and how it deteriorated over the years and then seeing that final breakup and not not having him in my life for the past few years, and not being at his funeral – it was all internalized,” she said.
Thanks to therapy in her twenties, she was able to come to terms with the situation, she said.
“The older I got, the more I started to look at my legacy and my life and I got irritated that he didn’t share that,” she said. “I did not recognize his greatness in me.”
Preston-Folta wrote a book, “Little Satchmo,” in 2012 and was looking for another way to tell her story.
“I was grateful the book was published,” she said. “It was something that I always thought I could turn into a film project or a stage.”
The Wichita-based Rhodes, listed as an associate producer, said he felt like a great idea had fallen on him.
“We jumped at the chance because it’s an amazing story and once you meet Sharon it’s like where are you going to get another chance to have a great opportunity to tell a great story about the American history, especially music history?” He asked.
Preston-Folta works as a sales executive for an NPR station in Tampa, Florida, and hosts a weekly Saturday morning show on a community radio station, featuring primarily female voices in blues and jazz.
“Little Satchmo” premiered in November in Greece and played at 25-30 film festivals, as well as extended tours in Europe and New Orleans.
“Even now I find out how famous Louis Armstrong was around the world, as a musician, and how influential he was,” Rhodes said. When he asked young people in Italy, Greece and Croatia if they knew who Louis Armstrong was, “their answer in that language is usually something like ‘Duh’.”
Rhodes said he was proud to bring to light a story about an unknown chapter in the life of a musical icon.
“Historically, Louis Armstrong was probably one of the five most famous musicians of the last century, if not more,” he said. “The fact that this secret has been so hidden and hasn’t been revealed until now is amazing. I mean, kudos to Sharon for sharing this. He had to be out there, because if you look at the big picture, it’s pretty monumental as American music says.
Preston-Folta hopes “Little Satchmo” will be dramatized.
“If this is the end of the line, I couldn’t be happier. It’s exactly what I was hoping for for my story,” she said. “It’s communicated so well. The producers and the director really took my story and my voice and translated it so well to the cinema that I’m really thrilled.
Although Preston-Folta plays seven instruments, “I have musical talent but I suck at practice.”
“I subconsciously felt I was never going to live up to my dad,” she said, though she continues to be a fan of his music. “It defined my taste in music and what I define as musical excellence.”
WICHITA JAZZ FESTIVAL
When: April 20-24
Or: Crown Uptown Theater, 3207 E. Douglas, Wichita, and Bartlett Arboretum, Belle Plaine
Tickets: $30 per performance or a five-day pass for $120, from wichitajazzfestival.com or 612-7696
Wednesday April 20: Ad Astra concert: saxophonist Bobby Watson and the Delano Jazz Orchestra at 8 p.m.
Thursday, April 21: screening of “Little Satchmo”, followed by a Q&A with Sharon Preston-Folta, followed by music from the Bill Harshbarger Quintet, with singer Betti O.
Friday, April 22: Leap Day Trio performs at Miller Concert Hall in Wichita State from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; to the Crown at 8.
Saturday April 23: The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, conducted by Scotty Barnhart and featuring singer Carmen Bradford, nominated for the 2022 Grammy Awards
Sunday, April 24: Daydream Band, a 10-piece band from Wichita, 4 p.m. at Bartlett Arboretum.