By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Louis Armstrong has been one of the most thoroughly researched, yet still largely unknown figures. Part of the problem is that the lens of history has been deliberately clouded and that much of his life’s story was glamorized and rewritten by no less a raconteur than Armstrong himself.
A pivotal pioneer in jazz, he suffered through what most surmise was a miserable New Orleans childhood on the edge of Black Storyville. With a mostly-absent mother who was a prostitute, Armstong was reared by his grandmother and instilled with the value of hard work he found while working with the Karnofsky family of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants.
All of this and more – Armstrong’s penchant for marijuana, his prolific use of profanity and his conflicted relationship with his Jewish manager Joe Glaser – is retold in a one-man play written by Terry Teachout, Satchmo at the Waldorf, currently playing at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.
Trying to tell Armstrong’s story in his own words is a daunting task. Teachout referred to scores of oral histories Armstrong left behind, many of which directly contradicted each other. Historians have found that when a story needed embellishing, Armstrong was ready to add to its luster, especially as he got older. Perhaps the most well-known example was the jazz master’s own birthdate, which for years he insisted was July 4, 1900.
Fifteen years after his death, Armstrong researcher Tad Jones discovered Armstrong’s birth record buried in the baptismal records of his local church and today August 4, 1901 is accepted as the more accurate birthdate. Early in his career, Armstrong learned that when a reporter was asking for his story, they really wanted something spicy or groundbreaking. Satchmo, as some knew him, or Pops, as friends called him, was always ready to engage anyone interested in writing down his story and invented new twists to his backstory as often as he was asked.di
Many of the oral histories left behind contain inaccuracies, but it is also possible that after spinning these tales for decades, Armstrong began to believe they were genuine memories. Teachout had little in the way of sifting through disputed scholarly input when he began to shape his manuscript for what has become Satchmo at the Waldorf.
Teachout, who is not African-American, which is surprising because he writes so authentically from that experience, wanted to impress upon his audience several points, beginning with the title. The grandson of a woman born into slavery, Armstrong was persecuted for decades because of his racial background. Rules were imposed that prevented musicians of different races from playing together. Oftentimes, when Armstrong and his fellow musicians were permitted to play in hotels, they were not allowed to be lodged there. The Waldorf represented the pinnacle to Armstrong of American hotels and status that he had arrived or at least was accepted.
In frank and sometimes profane language Barry Shabaka Henley tackles the role of Louis Armstrong with a fierce and passionate rendering. Having previously performed the play in Chicago and West Palm Beach, Henley was already familiar with the nuances of playing the historic figure when he was cast by artistic director Maxwell Williams, who is also serving as the director of the production. While Armstrong is the first and foremost character he embodies in the work, Henley also channels Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager and Miles Davis, a figure who represents the cool and avant-guard jazz that became popular after Armstrong’s formative and influential period in the 1920s and 1930s.
With inventive lighting changes, Henley moves into two African-American dialects and then into a New York Jewish accent for Glaser. While Glaser and Davis figure less prominently in Teachout’s script, they are essential to move the work along and give counterpart to Armstrong’s feelings and motivations in several key scenes.
Henley moves so easily into each character that the audience takes a second or two to catch up and understand that he is taking on a new persona. That is not a problem that needs to be resolved. It is an indication that he is so well acquainted with the script and its characters that he can become one with another before the audience anticipates the change.
The language may shock some, but for those that know a measure of the real man who became an American icon, it is genuine. Armstrong loved music and he knew he was one of its foremost innovators, but as the book reveals, he grew tired with hitting all those high notes and showing youngsters how it was done. Instead, he craved legitimacy and universal recognition of his worth as a human without sanction to the prejudice of so many of his fellow Americans.
The setting for the show is the backstage dressing room of the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Henley enters the room designed by Hannah Lax as Armstrong and he cleverly uses several props in order to move the story along. Playing a reel-to-reel tape of the opening of “West End Blues,” he deconstructs the series of notes that ascended and descended and helped to rewrite the history of jazz. Cradling a trumpet so as to emphasize his prowess on the horn, Henley breathes life into this interpretation of Louis Armstrong with reverence and respect. Teachout’s words may at times be profane, but they reflect an honest portrayal of the man and the simple lifestyle he craved.
Henley’s performance as Glaser is also remarkable. Glaser was trusted by Armstrong to take care of him, despite his history of questionable business practices. Born into a Chicago physician’s family, he was a known racketeer and his ability to strongarm others was the probable reason Armstrong chose him to take over his financial affairs, after a disastrous European tour in the early 1930s and an ongoing battle with his ex-wife Lil Hardin and other mobsters like Dutch Schultz. Glaser made others’ financial demands and claims on Armstrong go away so that he was free to play his music.
Although the importance of Glaser’s booking agency, Associated Booking Corporation (ABC), is not fully expressed in the play, Armstrong was, indeed, its oldest star. At the time of his death in 1969, Glaser’s stable of performers had included other jazz stars like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and relative newcomer Dave Brubeck and superstar Barbra Streisand.
A theatre critic for the Wall Street Journal, Teachout imparts mostly accurate information about Armstrong, Glaser and Davis, occasionally yielding to some of the stories spun by Armstrong that have added to his legend since his passing. The book for Satchmo at the Waldorf does give an overall correct impression of the major and two minor characters contained within it.
The lighting design is also noteworthy by Joshua Courtney. A field of stars gives an appropriate impression of the nighttime, when Davis speaks about Armstrong, for example. The lighting for the dressing room is balanced with consideration for the mirrors there, giving the audience an overall impression of intimacy.
Clearly, Henley’s performance and the brilliant direction by Williams mark this as a show not to miss. It kicks off what might be one of the strongest seasons for the area’s oldest community theater.
Satchmo at the Waldorf continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street, through October 21. Tickets are available by calling 504-522-2081 or clicking here.