At one point during Terry Teachout's play Satchmo at the Waldorf, the character of Louis Armstrong, performed by the accomplished stage and screen actor John Douglas Thompson, talks about his astonishing ability to string together a series of high Cs on his horn. Satchmo adds that, after those high notes, he likes "to take things way back down low, so you know you been somewhere." Something similar is true of Teachout's play. As with the experience of all true art, you know you've been somewhere.
Teachout is on a roll of late. The longtime drama critic for the Wall Street Journal — and the only theater critic, it should be noted, who regularly covers, beyond the insular world of Broadway, local theater companies in towns across the country — Teachout is the author of Pops, a very well-received biography of Armstrong, from which he draws heavily in his script for Satchmo. His current book project, entitled Mood Indigo, is a study of the life of Duke Ellington, a project for which he received a highly coveted Guggenheim Fellowship.
Satchmo, directed by Gordon Edelstein, debuted last summer at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., then moved to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and has just opened for a short stint at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (playing through December 2). Critics from the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and other publications are raving about the play, and with good reason.
That's not to say success was guaranteed. Teachout's very risky composition of a one-man play, focusing primarily, of course, on Armstrong but secondarily on Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, and with brief appearances by Armstrong's musical nemesis, Miles Davis, could have easily faltered in any number of ways. Bad pacing, uneven shifts between characters, or the inability of the actor to sustain a 90-minute series of monologues — any of these could have derailed the performance.
Happily for viewers, none of these difficulties surface. The script scintillates, and the performance captivates, from start to finish. Above all, theatergoers will discover a very happy coincidence of material and performer, with John Douglas Thompson moving with ease back and forth between the characters, masterfully altering the emotional register — from anger to sorrow, from desperation to joy — and keeping the audience entertained throughout. (A lengthy standing ovation followed the performance I attended last weekend in Philadelphia.)
Prompted by a famous photograph of a pensive and weary Armstrong backstage at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971, just months before his death, Satchmo at the Waldorf is a behind-the-scenes presentation of the life of Louis (pronounced Lewis, not Louie, because, as Armstrong says, "I ain't French. I'm black") Armstrong, the man. As he says early on, "People don't know me; all they know is what they see on TV."
Now, whether it's in the VH1 Behind the Music series or in Hollywood tell-all books, we are accustomed to portrayals of artists in which an apparently happy life is revealed as a lie and the veneer of success as a cover for depression, self-abuse, and despair.
What we confront in this play is an Armstrong considerably more complex than what we may have seen onstage or encountered in his music, an Armstrong beset by regrets, doubts, and bitterness, especially about "all the trash my people talked about me" –such as the accusation, voiced by Miles Davis, that he was an Uncle Tom, a sellout to white society. The imperious Davis makes several appearances to offer harsh criticisms of Armstrong for acting the clown in front of white folks and for ignoring black pride.
Armstrong's rejoinder is powerful and equally mocking. Concerning Davis, he asserts that the "piss ant" had to go to "college to learn how to play." He adds, bitterly, "When did Miles ever sacrifice anything for anybody except Miles Davis?" By contrast, Armstrong claims that his success in playing the big hotels across the country, at which he was sometimes forbidden to stay or eat, paved the way for other blacks to perform in those venues. Even more dramatically, Armstrong recalls how he spoke publicly and bluntly about the treatment of young black girls in Little Rock. He openly criticized President Eisenhower for "sitting on his ass in the White House." The scene in which Armstrong relates the story of how he was approached by a young white reporter who wanted to interview him about the happenings in Little Rock is one of the funniest in the play. Armstrong, known for his liberal use of expletives — from which Teachout's script does not shy — calls the governor of Arkansas a m****rf****r. The scandalized young reporter asks, "Mr. Armstrong, could we call the governor an uneducated plowboy?" To which Louis responds, "Yeah, an uneducated plowboy, m****rf****r."
Armstrong is also bitter about the most important white man in his life, his manager, Joe Glaser, who efficiently managed his career but who, at his death, left Louis out of his will. Armstrong is riddled with doubt as to whether a man he thought was his friend was nothing more than a greedy opportunist.
Glaser, whom Thompson also brings vividly to life, has grievances of his own. At least he had the good sense to realize what he had in Armstrong. "What's wrong with geniuses?" he asks at one point and then deadpans, "Nothing. It's the ones that think they're geniuses that cause all the trouble." Glaser knew he was fortunate to have a genius in Armstrong.
Some of Glaser's complaints are mild and humorous, such as the story he tells about audience requests to hear "Hello, Dolly!" Incredulous, Glaser asks, "Can you believe Louis couldn't remember the song?" Nor, it turned out, could any of his band members. Glaser had to mail them a recording so they could relearn it.
About that famous song, Armstrong is blunt in his assessment: "It ain't much of a song; in fact, it's a piece of s**t." Yet, as he relates the tale of its surprising climb up the record charts, he beams with pride as he recalls how it displaced at number one a song by "John, Paul, George, and Ringo."
Glaser's biggest lament has nothing to do with Armstrong and everything to do with his own indentured servitude to Al Capone and the mob. If Armstrong was in some sense a tool of Glaser's success, Glaser himself was but a pawn in the machinations of the mob. Teachout gives Glaser the sage observation here that most of us, powerful or not, genius or not, spend most of our time in servitude to some individual or organization, more or less unseemly.
What is remarkable about Teachout's behind-the-scenes look at Armstrong is that it does not ultimately fall prey to bitterness or despair. Indeed, Satchmo is engaged in a quest that is at once quite ordinary and also the stuff of philosophy: to glimpse the arc of one's life, to see it as a whole, to articulate its failures and successes, its angry disappointments and its joys, and ultimately to affirm its goodness.
Now, Armstrong was known for his connection with audiences, especially with white audiences. Teachout's script plays cleverly and insightfully on that intimacy. At one point, Satchmo complains that his people from Harlem do not bother to come downtown to see him perform at the Waldorf-Astoria. But, he goes on to observe, the white folks never stop coming. Then Thompson pauses, fixes his eyes on the audience — so far as I could tell, an all-white audience — and gestures knowingly toward us, as if to say, "See what I mean? You white folks are still coming to see me."
But Teachout is doing much more than commenting on Armstrong's racial crossover success. He is making a humble but often forgotten point about art and artists: Their task is to captivate and entertain. The play does that with great success and thus extends Satchmo's relationship with his audience beyond his death, and into the present.
The brilliance of Teachout's play is that it does so without withholding from the audience, as Satchmo the performer deliberately did, the suffering and doubt of the performer's life. Teachout reaches down deep into the soul of Satchmo to present, in the midst of pain and sacrifice, a buoyantly joyous life.
Surprising in one way but perhaps not in another, the closing strikes a powerfully religious chord. Armstrong ends by recalling the message of his dying mother, that he would make people happy because he had a good heart. He adds that he has never failed to say his prayers every night or to offer a blessing before meals. He then quotes the song for which he is perhaps best known, "What a Wonderful World," particularly its refrain about the "bright blessed days" and the "dark sacred nights."
Jazz, known for its link to the blues and for its articulation of the miseries of this life, is, according to Satchmo, "happy down deep," even when "it's about the bad stuff." As Armstrong says about his own music, "If you think about the good times, the notes gonna come out all right." That is an apt description of Thompson's memorable enactment of Teachout's script, testimony to a life that, even with all the bad stuff, comes out all right.