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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Satchmo at the Waldorf: Louis Armstrong Speaks From A.C.T.'s Stage

Posted By on Wed, Jan 13, 2016 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong - T. CHARLES ERICKSON
  • T. Charles Erickson
  • John Douglas Thompson as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong
(1901-1971) is widely considered to be one of the 20th century's most brilliant and influential jazz musicians. Embraced by white audiences, he lived a life of privilege while experiencing the sting of racism. Satchmo sold millions of records and also appeared in films — his exquisite trumpet playing mesmerized his primarily white audience. Blacks, however, vilified Satchmo — they viewed him as a sell-out, as an "Uncle Tom."

In Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf, at A.C.T., Armstrong speaks to us from the past in the person of actor John Douglas Thompson. Thompson also plays Joe Glazer, the musician's long-time agent — Glazer occasionally inhabits his client's body as the story unfolds. 

"The play is about the uneasy relationship between Armstrong and Glazer," Teachout told SF Weekly. "Louis came to feel that Glazer, who had been seen as a kind of father figure to him, had betrayed him. Armstrong and Glazer are both telling their sides of the story." 


click to enlarge Author Terry Teachout - KEN HOWARD
  • Ken Howard
  • Author Terry Teachout
The play is set in Armstrong's dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where the musician played his final high profile gig prior to his death. Jazz great Miles Davis in the play's third character — Davis refused to bow to the wishes of white audiences. 

"Miles respected Armstrong's art but didn't understand his attitude," Teachout said. "To Armstrong, pleasing his audience was a  religion." 

Teachout noted that the play was Armstrong's story alone. "My point of view is not on display in the play," he said. "I'm throwing out the points of view of the three characters and letting audiences make up their minds. The goal of the play is to tell people what they don't already know — and to entertain." 

The playwright recalled his introduction to Louis Armstrong: "I first saw Louis singing Hello Dolly, his final hit, on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was around five or six," he said. "My mom called me in and said that she wanted me to see this man who won't be around forever. It was Sullivan who was responsible for bringing Louis to a whiter, wider audience — Louis made his TV debut on the Sullivan show." 

Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal. He says that he's not concerned with the fact that fellow critics are going to be reviewing his work. "I've written a lot of books and librettos for three operas," he said. "People have been reviewing me for 20 years." 

His first play, Teachout feels, will appeal to a broad audience. "The play does a lot of different things and will appeal to a lot of different people," he said. "I don't like preaching from the stage. At the end of the play I want you to go home and make up your own mind about what you saw,"

Satchmo at the Waldorf, through Feb. 7, at A.C.T., 415 Geary, 415-749-2228.         


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