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In 'Little Satchmo,' a Sarasota resident shares her story as the secret daughter of Louis Armstrong

 Sharon Preston-Folta sat down in the WUSF studios to share her story growing up as the daughter of Louis Armstrong.
Victoria Crosdale
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WUSF Public Media
Sharon Preston-Folta sat down in the WUSF studios to share her story growing up as the daughter of Louis Armstrong.

For most of Sharon Preston-Folta’s life, she kept a profound secret: her father is jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

The public believed for decades that Armstrong did not have any children. But Preston-Folta changed that 10 years ago when she revealed in a memoir that she is his daughter. The Sarasota resident is sharing her story again, this time on screen in the documentary “Little Satchmo.”

It’s playing at film festivals around the world this year and will kick off the upcoming season of the PBS series REEL SOUTH on April 11.

Wednesday, REEL SOUTH will host a virtual screening and Q&A with Preston-Folta and the filmmakers ahead of its Season Seven premiere.

Preston-Folta was born in 1955. Her mother, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, was a performer from Harlem, New York. She was romantically involved with Armstrong for many years, but he was married to someone else — his fourth wife Lucille Armstrong.

Preston-Folta said the world-famous musician and cultural icon felt like he couldn’t publicly acknowledge a child born from an affair.

“For anybody back then in the 1950s and '60s it was taboo,” she said. “Just add the fact that Black people were not considered equal and were fighting for civil rights, it would take them back even further.”

But privately, Preston-Folta was part of Armstrong's life.

She has letters and audio recordings he would send to her and her mom professing his love for them and recounting his travels.

“It was just part of how he interacted with us. You know, it wasn’t really until he wasn’t with us that I realized how special it was that he communicated through letters and sent audio messages as if he were there,” said Preston-Folta.

Armstrong's instantly recognizable voice can be heard in the film delivering messages like, “I know Sharon is a good girl.” The documentary, like the memoir, gets its name from another letter Armstrong sent Sweets Preston when he learned she was pregnant.

“He says, ‘Oh the baby must have my name right away,’” said Preston-Folta, whose middle name is Louise. “And then he says, ‘Take care of yourself and my Little Satchmo.’”

Armstrong also talks in the letters of paying for Preston-Folta's education and sending her presents. She said he paid for her to go to private school and saved up money for her to go to college.

He bought her mom a home in Mount Vernon, New York. Preston-Folta said her father would visit them there occasionally, or invite them along on tour to see him perform.

“One song that I always feel connected to him is “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” said Preston-Folta, beginning to reminisce.

“I can remember as a young child going to those shows either sitting in the front row or being backstage. And he sings that song like no one else, and he ends it the same way, you know (singing), ‘Good evening everybody,’ and then goes into the next song. It makes me smile because it reminds me of when we were together.”

Preston-Folta said that's the one song that makes her think of “Dad” when she hears it, rather than Armstrong the jazz icon.

She said as a young child, life was good, but said as she grew older she began to question why she couldn’t see or speak to her dad without her mom and others carefully controlling the situation. His absence became more painful.

“In the veil of having a roof over my head and a decent lifestyle, I was missing that emotional connection,” said Preston-Folta.

She was 10 years old when she learned the truth about her father’s marriage, watching from her living room as Armstrong talked about his wife on the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

“So it was really confusing, which led to anger, and then also led to, well, I need to be self-sufficient,” she said.

Preston-Folta said she and her mom lost touch with her father in the years leading up to his death in 1971. She said his illness, and also a bitter argument her parents had on a trip to Atlantic City a few years prior, contributed to the separation.

Sharon Preston-Folta looking through pictures of her father, Louis Armstrong.
Image Courtesy of Little Satchmo Documentary LLC, Copyright 2021
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Sharon Preston-Folta looking through pictures of her father, Louis Armstrong.

It took a lot of time, she said, to reflect on her relationship with her parents and accept them.

“Like people say it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to heal,” she said. “So it wasn’t just one thing, it was sitting with a qualified therapist, it was renewing my faith — I’m a born-again Christian. I would say the biggest catharsis came when I sat down and wrote the memoir.”

Preston-Folta co-wrote Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of my father, Louis Daniel Armstrong with Denene Millner in 2012.

“I just wanted to make myself known and the circumstances of why I wasn't known, but I do exist,” she said.

“Remember the genius that he was, that he was a multi-dimensional human being, he loved deeply and that my mother and I were a part of his life as much as anything else was in his life."
Sharon Preston-Folta

The outpouring of support Preston-Folta has received since publishing the book and now screening the documentary has meant a lot to her, she said. Some people open up about their own challenges with parents; others share fond memories of Louis Armstrong.

“Here these people were accepting me and sharing with me and just letting me know just how special he was, so that was an unexpected gift,” she said. “And I’m thankful that other people saw themselves in my story in some way.”

Preston-Folta acknowledged there have also been skeptics who question whether she really is Armstrong's daughter. There is no medical proof, though she bears a striking resemblance to him. She said Armstrong’s wife also legally “erased” her from his will, signing an affidavit after his death that he bore no children nor adopted any.

But Preston-Folta said she knows Armstrong believed he was her father, and she believes that he loved her “the best way he could.”

As for how her story should affect his legacy, Preston-Folta said she hopes the documentary will help people understand her father was a complex man as opposed to a caricature of an entertainer.

“Remember the genius that he was, that he was a multi-dimensional human being, he loved deeply, and that my mother and I were a part of his life as much as anything else was in his life,” she said.

Little Satchmo is directed by John Alexander, who also wrote the film. Lea Umberger and JC Guest produced it.

Preston-Folta said the “small but mighty” team worked through the pandemic to craft the film, blending found footage with shots taken in her Sarasota home.

According to Umberger, the documentary has been selected for more than 20 film festivals around the world from the U.S. to Greece, Japan, Italy, and more. Earlier this month it was featured in the Through Women’s Eyes International Film Festival in Sarasota.

On April 10, Green Light Cinema in St. Petersburg will also host a screening and Q&A as part of the Listen Up Film Series, presented by Daddy Kool Records. You can purchase tickets for the event here.

Wednesday's free virtual screening hosted by REEL SOUTH starts at 7 p.m. You can register to attend here.

Sharon Preston-Folta works as a senior account executive at WUSF Public Media.

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