Sarasota resident Sharon Preston-Folta lived with a truly momentous secret for most of her life. And now that she’s disclosed it, she’s relishing the chance to set the record straight.
Preston-Folta, the daughter of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, spent decades in the shadows. But she pulled back the cloak of secrecy by writing and publishing “Little Satchmo” as a memoir, and now it’s making the rounds of the documentary film circuit.
Preston-Folta will show the film and answer questions at its regional premiere at Fogartyville on March 3, and she’s been really proud of the way the book and film have been received.
“Just for so long, it was really tough to feel I had the right to own my story,” she says of reclaiming her place in history. “It didn’t go without a lot of coaching and encouragement and all of that to get to a place where I felt confident and strong enough to pursue it.”
Preston-Folta’s mother was Lucille Preston, half of a famed dance team with her husband, Luther Preston. Luther Preston died in 1950, and Lucille began a relationship with Armstrong, but it was a family secret they kept to protect themselves and Armstrong’s legacy. And when she was young, Preston-Folta didn’t really feel affected by that secret.
It was only as she got older and began to understand the way it impacted her life that it became an issue.
“All of the show business people — Black vaudeville and Black entertainers — they all knew each other whether they were the opening act or the closing act,” says Preston-Folta. “But when my mother’s husband passed, that’s when my father said to my mother, ‘I’m supposed to take care of you.’ That was the beginning of their relationship outside of the friendship.
“As a little kid, even though my father was still married, we traveled with him. He came to the house on occasion. When I was real little, I would actually go on the road, and we’d spend at least a month with him traveling around. That was a great experience.”
Armstrong, says Preston-Folta, purchased a house for her mom in Mount Vernon, New York, and he was a presence in her life. Preston-Folta fondly remembers playing the piano and the accordion for him, but she says he never offered to teach her how to play trumpet.
Preston-Folta said her parents had a rupture in their relationship when she was about 12, and four short years later, Armstrong died. That robbed her of an opportunity to get to know her father better and increased the stakes of telling people her true identity.
“When I was really little, it didn’t phase me because we were with him a lot,” she says. “When I got older is when it started to bother me. I went to private school all the way through, and back in the '60s, there weren’t a lot of single parents back then. Unless they were widowed. And my mother was widowed, so that’s what people thought. They didn’t ask questions. But it was lonely, even though I had a lot of family. Especially for my mother. As I got older, I felt it more, and as an older child, you need both parents. It became tough.”
Still, Preston-Folta bided her time and lived her life. She attended Westchester Community College and Iona College, and she embarked on a career in radio advertising sales. Preston-Folta worked in New York for decades, and she moved to Sarasota around 17 years ago. For the past nine years, she’s worked for WUSF, Tampa’s NPR affiliate.
Taking control of her story
The big leap in her life came in 2012, when she self-published her memoir and went public with her truth.
“It was empowering,” she says. “But it was a little nerve-wracking to go on that journey. I just felt it was the right thing to do. By the time I decided to do that, I was a grandmother. I was at a place in my life where I was thinking about what kind of legacy I want to leave. I just felt that the family secret was how my parents needed to handle it that way, but I did not."
Preston-Folta says the aim in telling her story was to empower other people to take control of their own narrative. She has donated memorabilia from her father’s life to the Library of Congress, and she’s been thrilled by the way people have reacted to her.
“I was thankful for how it was received. I didn’t receive a lot of negative feedback,” she says. “There were naysayers and doubters, but they were few and far between. People embraced me. I self-published the book, and when people saw it, they would invite me to speak at their book clubs. In Mount Vernon, where I’m originally from, they invited me to do a book event. And people shared with me their experiences of him. That was an unexpected pleasure.”
The same process is now playing out with the movie.
The film made its world premiere in Greece, and it has also been shown at festivals in Croatia, Italy and Canada. It is currently making the rounds of the film circuit inside the United States.
The documentary will be shown at Fogartyville on March 3, and PBS viewers will have a chance to see it on TV on April 11. Producer Lea Umberger, who helped Preston-Folta bring her memoir to the screen, said it was a labor of love to tell the story in another medium.
Umberger said she met Preston-Folta while working on another project, and she was gobsmacked when she learned about Armstrong.
“I read the book and was like, ‘Oh my God,’” she says. “It was really beautiful because I connected with it as a daughter. I love Louis Armstrong, and I love his music, but it was connecting with the person as a daughter and seeing what she went through. She had a connection with her dad but not a full connection with her dad. That was one of the most important things and the thing we connected on the most. It’s the reason she trusted us with the story. She could’ve gone to anyone with her information, and she trusted us.”
Umberger said the creative team behind the documentary was thrilled to be able to tell the story on a grander scale and correct the record about Armstrong’s life.
“Now it’s so different with the way social media is. You’re so much closer to your icons,” she says.
“It gives a more human touch to who he is as a person. It gives a whole new meaning to his songs when I listen to them. He had a daughter, and this was the music he was making.”
For Preston-Folta, the revelation has meant so much personally, but it hasn’t really impacted the way people treat her. She’s still Sharon, she says, and the people who know and have worked with her have no problem reconciling who she is with where she came from.
“It’s a change in that I don’t have to whisper it anymore. But for the most part people are not treating me differently,” she says. “I do get to meet more people that were connected to him or love him. People are coming up to me thanking me for just being brave enough to tell my story.
"So many people have different stories of their own that they just keep inside because they don’t feel they can share them. My story isn’t the prettiest story, but it’s my story. There’s good in everything, and I’m bringing that part out."