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'Satchmo at the Waldorf' lets audiences decide if Louis Armstrong was a hero or held black artists back

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One-man show "Satchmo at the Waldorf" stars John Douglas Thomas as jazz great Louis Armstrong, reflecting on his career months before he died in 1971.

One-man show "Satchmo at the Waldorf" stars John Douglas Thomas as jazz great Louis Armstrong, unwinding backstage and reflecting on his career just months before he died in 1971. Thomas also plays Armstrong's manager and Miles Davis.

The playwright, Terry Teachout, is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, and he’s also written extensively about jazz. His 2009 biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” led to the play, which had a successful off-Broadway run last year.

Teachout says Armstrong was the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century. 

"He singlehandedly changed the sound of jazz," Teachout says. "And beyond that, Armstrong was also the man who essentially created the idea of the virtuoso jazz soloist. So between these two things, he becomes the musician that everybody wanted to play like, and of course, when he started singing, the one that everybody wanted to sing like as well."

Proving that Louis Armstrong shouldn't be seen as an Uncle Tom

In a New York Times review of Teachout's biography of Armstrong, it said that the book read like a brief in Armstrong's defense.

"I think all biographies are, to some degree, briefs for the defense. Armstrong, in the second half of his life, was quite widely misunderstood, because he was a man from an older time. He was a man, in chronological time, essentially almost from the minstrel show era."

Armstrong was seen as a hero in the black community in the '20s and '30s, but later black musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis saw him differently, Teachout says.

"They recognized that he was a great artist, but they were very uncomfortable with his ingratiating stage manner, which they saw as Uncle Tom-ish."

Teachout says the play doesn't take a position on that issue, but tries to get at it through the three characters Armstrong plays.

"[The play] really requires you, the viewer, to make up your own mind about how you feel about Armstrong."

Gillespie and Davis were wrong, Teachout says.

"I think they were viewing him from an achronological, ahistorical perspective. Dizzy lived long enough to understand that he'd been wrong, and to retract, in his own autobiography, what he'd said about Armstrong. Miles, I don't think he ever changed his mind. I think he respected Armstrong, and, I think, probably also loved him as a man, but was always uncomfortable with his stage manner."

Davis argued that Armstrong made it harder for the next generation of black artists to break out, but Teachout disagrees.

"It doesn't seem to me that they had any difficulty with that. Certainly, Miles Davis himself had no difficulty with it at all. Miles was as great a popular culture figure in his time, from the '50s on, as Louis Armstrong was in the '20s, '30s and '40s. He was simply seeing Armstrong through the prism of his own historical perspective."

Teachout sees the perception as a generational issue, with Armstrong continuing on as a traditionalist while other black jazz artists moved into a different kind of music.

"He was an older man. He died at the age of 71. He had been essentially doing what he was doing since the '30s. He had found what worked for him, and he stuck with it, as artists do."

What you can say on stage that you can't say in a biography

Moving from biography to the stage, Teachout says he was able to speculate in the new format more than the straight-ahead book allowed him to, getting at what he didn't have the historical evidence to put his finger on in print.

"What was the exact nature of the relationship between Armstrong and Joe Glaser, his manager? Why did Armstrong feel at the end of his life that Glaser had sold him out? What did Glaser do the things that led Armstrong to feel that he had been betrayed? Glaser was mobbed up, and mob guys don't keep diaries. It's unfortunate. The portrayal of Glaser in the play is more fictionalized either than Armstrong or Miles Davis. It has to be. We just don't have enough material to work with."

There was plenty of material from Armstrong — Teachout has 650 audio tapes of Armstrong recording his thoughts and sound from performances. But while the play allowed for freedom, Teachout says he didn't write it to prove a point.

"I wrote it because I got an email a couple of months after 'Pops' was published, from somebody whose name I didn't recognize, saying, 'I read your book, I liked it, I think there's a play in it. Have you thought about writing a play?' Which I never had."

Teachout says he googled the man who emailed him, and it turned out he was a theatrical producer.

"He had worked on 'Jelly's Last Jam,' he had worked on Elaine Stritch's show, and I thought, 'Well, gosh, if somebody like that thinks there's a play in my book, maybe I should try writing a play and see what happens.'"

Teachout also looked up his own reviews of the producer's work, which he says were quite good.

"I thought, 'OK, I'm game,'" Teachout says. "I'm a drama critic, that's what my day job is. And I was not a frustrated playwright. The cliche about drama critics sitting around, wishing they could write a play, is not true. But when he suggested it, I thought, why not? And then, when it was done, I looked back and I said, 'What have I done? What does this mean?' And I realized that, among other things, I had used the play to try to get at these questions about Armstrong and Glaser."

Glaser and Armstrong were the most significant relationships in each man's life, Teachout says. Another example of the play moving beyond strict facts — when Armstrong tells a story in the play about black musicians getting meals in whites-only restaurants by sneaking in the back and being served by black cooks, he notes in the play the irony of the widely respected Armstrong standing and eating in the kitchen.

"That line is me. He liked to tell this story, specifically about eating T-bone steaks back in the kitchen, and I thought to myself, 'Well, there's a great irony in this,' that he was doing this when he was a very famous man. And I knew from the tapes that Armstrong had very realistic views, a truly eye-opened understanding of what it meant to be a black man in America mid-century. And so I felt that, in putting those words in his mouth, I wasn't being false to his sense of self. I was just sharpening the focus in a way that a biographer cannot do."

The 2 things that drove Louis Armstrong

The play deals with what Glaser wanted from the relationship, but leaves open the question of what Armstrong wanted himself — fame, money, or just seeing an audience enjoy his music as he played 300 shows a year. Teachout says there were two things driving Armstrong.

"The lesser one is he was a person who had been deprived of the experience of having a father. His father walked out on him — he used to say — the day he was born, which may or may not be literally true, but it was figuratively true. And a person who loses the father figure that early in life always has a need for approval. Performers typically get it from an audience, and the approval of the audience."

Teachout says that, in a smaller way, Armstrong's drive came from a desire to feel he was giving people something they wanted.

"The bigger part of what drove Armstrong, I think, was that he knew what he was. He was somebody extraordinary who had come from nothing, from Storyville, from the worst part of the gutter, and had become a world famous, culture-changing artist. The bottom line is that his greatest pleasure in life was to get in front of an audience, and blow the horn, and sing the songs, and give happiness."

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" is at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through June 7.

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