There’s no doubt that Terry Teachout — the distinguished critic and biographer who wrote the new one-man play Satchmo at the Waldorf — intended to show the great trumpeter, singer, and populizer of jazz Louis Armstrong for what he really was: a human being, as vulnerable and conflicted as any other. Indeed, many in the audience at Off Broadway’s Westside Theatre may themselves feel conflicted when they hear the show’s opening line, delivered by the 71-year-old Armstrong after stepping into his dressing room at the Waldorf-Astoria, where he gave his final run of performances in 1970: ”I s— myself tonight.”
John Douglas Thompson, who plays Armstrong with a stooped posture and spurts of bile in that famous gravelly voice, offers up the line after stumbling onto a couch and taking gulps from an oxygen tank. It’s not long before Satchmo’s making wry asides about the gulf between his image and his origins (”Motherf—er! …. I bet you never heard me say that before”). But Teachout surely could’ve held out for a less demeaning metaphor for hidden suffering and powerlessness than incontinence.
Armstrong — whose mother was a prostitute, and who, as the play tells us, found many meals on tour in the South only when black restaurant staffs snuck him into their kitchens — did suffer in ways that his masterful musicianship and genial image did not betray. Thompson effectively draws out his rage at those trials, without downplaying his instinct for showmanship and flashes of pure joy. (Music is literally relegated to the background, although Armstrong does break down the subversive importance of his ”high C,” and devotion to ragtime, blues, and opera.)
Thompson is also tasked with playing, in periodic flash transformations, Joe Glaser and Miles Davis, Armstrong’s manager and ideological opposite, respectively. He does his best with Davis, written as a cartoon hep cat offering acid asides about Armstrong’s sacrifices to white America. Glaser, the mobbed-up Jewish hustler whose ”work ‘em like dogs, treat ‘em like kings” ethos kept Satchmo on the grueling path to megafame, comes off a bit like chest-beating cliché, too, although one you can more easily imagine existing in real life. It’s largely Glaser — or rather, in 1970, his ghost — that Armstrong rages against, and finally reverts to trusting, and remembering with love. It’s a hopeful ending, and also, perhaps, tragic. B