The first thing you notice when you walk into the Upstairs Westside Theatre is the set by Lee Savage for Satchmo At The Waldorf. You’re in the backstage dressing room of Louis Armstrong at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. There sitting on a table are his famous open reel tape recorders, on which Louis –he preferred Lew-is– recorded everything, and I mean everything from minor conversations complete with intimate squabbles with wife Lucille to late-night after-gig chit chat. Lucille and I talked about it during our few conversations prior to her visit to my Jazz Insights course at the New School in 1979. I also have heard some of the tapes.
Lucille and those tapes are the inspiration and probably the main source of author and playwright Terry Teachout’s information. I never got the chance to speak with him or the star of the one-man show John Douglas Thompson, but I did record their conversation with WBGO’s (Newark Public Radio) Rhonda Hamilton. The two, Drama Critic –Wall St, Journal– Teachout and corporate salesman (computers)-turned actor –”Othello,” “Antony and Cleopatra”– Thompson sat across the mic from Hamilton. The play had it’s workout premieres at regional theaters in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Favorable word-of-mouth preceded the New York opening.
Thompson’s “Satchmo…” portrayal is a true tour-d’force. He not only does Armstrong, but also his manager Joe Glaser, a gruff, rough, former, street-savvy, misogynist, racist Chicago Al Capone mafioso, as well as a snippet of Miles Davis. I heard that other characters are in the offing, notably Dizzy Gillespie. Thompson also does a brief turn as Lucille.
Armstrong did not like bebop, but Gillespie loved and respected Louis. The man who created it all and the man who changed it all performed together only once on a Timex All Star Jazz TV show. It’s on YouTube; you are hereby urged to watch.
“Satchmo At The Waldorf,” the play, is based on Teachout’s warts and all 2009 book “Pops” which I reviewed for the currently on hiatus http://jazz.com. The review is still available on Google. Teachout was so impressed by the tapes that he was encouraged to write the book.
There’s nothing magically uncovered in the play. I first found out about the insiders’ Satchmo from the Gary Giddins book and film of that title, which I show intact every semester in my Jazz History courses at New Jersey City University, than any new info gleaned by Teachout. The book, however, does uncover new information about the great trumpeter and innovator; a re-review is now in order, to be reported in another space and time.
Thompson gets it all down beautifully. Armstrong’s anger over Glaser’s not leaving him more in his will especially in the light of Armstrong making the Glaser managerial talent –Associated Booking was his– a standout over all those years, and Glaser creating a star from a dirt poor waif from New Orleans. “They hated/loved each other,” Teachout said on WBGO. “Every black musician had to have a white man running in front,” he said. Duke Ellington had Irving Mills. “Every [racist] white person knows one Nigger whom they love,” Armstrong said referring to himself. “I’m just lucky to be that Nigger whose dirty draws they love.”
Louis was also angered that his Hollywood friend Bing Crosby “never invited me to his home,” Thompson quotes Armstrong in the play. In all fairness, I have heard that Crosby rarely invited anyone.
If truth be told, and it wasn’t in the play, while Glaser made Armstrong a household… whatever, he in effect curtailed him cold in the influence department. The Armstrong concerts were the same almost note-for-note wherever he went. His creativity was shackled by fame and his penchant to entertain. The downside of that is what we were left with: a facade casting a giant shadow, albeit for jazz a truly spectacular one, by the great creator of the jazz idiom, from 1950 forward. Remember, it was Armstrong who first scatted, who first solo-ed, who was jazz’s first entertainer and ambassador –more about that in a later post– who made more movies and more appearances on Ed Sullivan’s TV show than any other musician. And all those high C’s!
The play does not go into that detail, as well it shouldn’t. Thompson is Satchmo in his failing year. He needs oxygen; he can hardly walk across the room, or bend down to tie his shoes. Thompson does not mimic the famous raspy Armstrong speech pattern. The segues from Armstrong’s amiability to Glaser’s wise-ass grousing to Davis’s “Uncle Tom” attitude are masterful moments of lighting by Kevin Adams, and mood. Thompson himself uses body language to display each role.
There’s no music save for some taped excerpts, and a brief vocal by Thompson, for us to grab hold of. We have to take on faith that what Teachout is telling us through Armstrong’s words is gospel. It all sounds familiar, but what is truth and what hearsay? The Playbill notes that what we experience is at least part fictional fleshing out from inferences and innuendo.
Even if fictionalized it is respectfully and introspectively performed by Thompson as directed by Gordon Edelstein. That said, you have to know the subject matter to separate “this work of fiction, freely based on fact.”
© arnold jay smith April 2014