John Douglas Thompson Part Four
A Scholarly Approach to Developing Roles
By: John Douglas Thompson and Charles Giuliano - Feb 16, 2012
Charles Giuliano In Terry Teachout’s play Satchmo at the Waldorf which premieres this summer at Shakespeare & Company you will play both Louis Armstrong and his manager Joe Glaser. In Teachout’s book they are described as having more than a professional relationship however complex. The mob blackmailed him into signing over his assets and contract. In the end Glaser betrayed their friendship and business relationship. That seems to be a primary tension and dramatic element for the play.
John Douglas Thompson The fact that Louis (Armstrong) does not get the satisfaction of knowing why Joe Glaser screwed him over in the end supplies a lot of the tension in the play. He just doesn’t know and that’s a true story. Joe Glaser signed over everything to the mob because they had him on the statutory rape thing. He liked young girls and was working in these places which had prostitution which Al Capone ran. Joe Glaser got involved with the women there and this thing followed him through the rest of his life. Eventually it’s the one thing that takes him down. And he can’t tell Louis about this. On a personal level that’s more interesting to me than the Little Rock stuff which is on a national level. I’m more interested in the personal things about Armstrong which is what I am trying to say.
CG As you hear the music I hope we get to discuss more of that. The music was born and created in New Orleans but musicians like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton moved to Chicago in order to make a living. New Orleans was home but the mob and the speakeasies were in Chicago. It’s also when black musicians first recorded jazz starting in 1923. That’s six years after the all white Original Dixieland Jazz Band had made the first jazz recordings. In Teachout’s “Pops a Life of Louis Armstrong” he states that Louis listened to and admired ODJB but Teachout finds them too fast and frenetic. He talks about the more languid, bluesy King Oliver/ Louis Armstrong sessions which were recorded under primitive conditions before the introduction of microphones. After 1923, however, with the first recording of black musicians, Teachout comments that you can follow the development of jazz almost month by month. Considering the importance of the mob and prohibition as a part of the Armstrong story have you been watching Boardwalk Empire on HBO?
JDT I don’t watch much TV and don’t have cable but I was planning on buying the first season when it comes out on DVD.
CG It’s one of the best mini series I have ever seen. It’s set in Atlantic City but Al Capone is among the characters. It conveys so much about that era. Also as you get deeper into Armstrong and the music of the 1920s it is important to be aware of the other streams going on. The two geniuses of cornet/ trumpet were Louis and Bix Beiderbecke. Teachout writes about how much Louis admired Bix. They heard each other in Chicago and represent very different styles. Because of revisionism in jazz history Bix is not given the recognition he deserves in the canon. Like other great white players he was marginalized or not mentioned in the Ken Burns PBS series on jazz. Jazz historian Stanley Crouch never mentioned Bix in the series. But Armstrong himself spoke of his deep admiration and they played together. Unfortunately Bix recorded with inferior musicians. It was too early for blacks and whites to record together. Later, Armstrong played and recorded with white musicians like the great trombone player Jack Teagarden. Bix developed a smoother, more legato style. You can even hear shades of Ravel in his only recorded piano solo “In a Mist.” He was only 28 when he died but his music was a great influence. If you follow the trajectory of Bix it leads into Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Bill Evans. You can even sense it in the Miles Davis recordings that were assembled as Birth of the Cool. Look at who Miles recorded with in those sessions: Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Gunther Schuller. It wasn’t successful and Miles evolved to something else. It’s a trajectory of that other side of jazz which is more influenced by classical music and less based in blues. Those parallels were already evident in the more elegant, ballroom music, with the written arrangements of the Creole musicians of New Orleans compared to the blues based, more improvisational style of black musicians like King Oliver and Armstrong. Again, Teachout discusses that. I saw Armstrong perform several times including the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival which was built around his birthday on the Fourth of July.
JDT Going back to Iceman Cometh which I am performing in Chicago, I always felt that Brutus Jones (The Emperor Jones) was this guy who was marginalized by society. The whole Malcom X thing. He was going to enfranchise himself by any means necessary. You have Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh who has been incredibly marginalized. He doesn’t know how to enfranchise himself. Ultimately, at the end of the day, doesn’t quite have that. So it’s fascinating that O’Neill would write these two characters. One who by sheer force of will and wit, intellectual rigor, can franchise himself. Albeit wrongly, because he abuses his own people as Brutus Jones. And here you have the opposite of Brutus Jones. So you have O’Neill drawing these two pictures of different types of black men in this racially oppressive society. One who is going to escape from that and create his own society. And another man who gets crushed by it. Those poles of difference are interesting. He was basing these characters on the times in which he was writing these plays. He probably saw this stuff first hand. Joe Mott is probably a closer representation of what was going on for the African American man in that particular time that he was writing this play. Brutus Jones is almost the fantasy version because he gets to break away from slavery and escape from prison. He becomes a king and makes a lot of money then has to escape. It’s all in his mind and consciousness. What he has repressed comes back and undoes him. So those two guys are really different and I find them fascinating to see what parts of Joe are in Brutus.
CG We never really got to finish our dialogue about Antony and Cleopatra. (Hartford Stage Company).
JDT Do you really want to talk about that?
CG I just finished reading Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff.
JDT That’s a great book. It gives a whole different perspective on Cleopatra and their relationship. How political she was. How smart she was.
CG If I had read the book at the time of our dialogue in Hartford that would have been very different.
JDT That book is a game changer. Now, when you go see Antony and Cleopatra you have been heavily influenced by the book. Not just you but everybody. The book was a best seller. I know people who are coming up with productions, directors who really have to take that book into account now. They have to come up with a new way of representing this play. People can’t accept it any other way now. At least for the next ten years or so. Until perhaps another book comes out.
CG When Antony falls on his sword but doesn’t manage to kill himself and is taken, mortally wounded and hauled up into the mausoleum, as Schiff points out, Shakespeare took that scene pretty well verbatim at the end of the play.
JDT That’s true. From that moment of him wanting to kill himself. Trying and failing and then being brought to Cleopatra, then hoisting him up. I’ve seen it done, well they hoisted me up. For him to be with her and then getting him into that mausoleum. That’s all supposedly fact. That really happened and Shakespeare literally lifted that right out of Plutarch. I wouldn’t say word for word because he gave it a different language. But moment to moment and the specificity of it is there. He was following Plutarch but Plutarch doesn’t write that much about Cleopatra. When I was reading for the play. Cleopatra was kind of like a footnote. In my opinion when I read that. It was really all about the trials and tribulations of Antony. How he dealt with his men. How he fought battles. His relationship with Caesar. Cleopatra was there but not the way she is in the play.
CG What seems to keep us connected as we discuss your roles is that you approach developing them as a scholar. You become embedded in knowing these characters inside out. As an academic that appeals to me in having that commonality. Looking at the text and then getting into the historical aspects of who these people are.
JDT I appreciate that Charles. I couldn’t have said it any better. It says a lot about me and it says a lot about you. It says a lot about us.
CG And we have our troubles.
JDT Of course. We wouldn’t have a friendship if we didn’t have troubles. It shouldn’t be easy but it should be fun. If it’s too easy then it’s not going to be fun. But I do approach characters and plays in that way. That’s been true pretty much for the past five to eight years of my career. Pretty much the past five. I’ve been going at it from a scholarly point of view to really get inside these characters. So I can get on stage and know that I have at least done the work. That I deserve to be here. That I deserve my time up at bat. If I have done my work really well I have a very good chance of hitting a home run.
CG Coming back to the Satchmo project just what do you know about jazz at this time? Is your interest that of a casual listener? Or are you more involved?
JDT I love jazz music. I have loved jazz since I was a college student. Mostly I have been following Miles. To be honest with you. Coltrane. Those have been my vanguards. But I have quite a few books here and a whole collection of CDs. I’m finding now with digital I can download music and put in my I Tunes.
CG How much do you know or are interested in that early period (1920s)?
JDT That is what I don’t know. Of that early period, Louis Armstrong is a representation to me, as a person much more focused on contemporary say from Miles Davis on, all I know about early jazz is Louis Armstrong.
CG So you have never listened to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet or Bix Beiderbecke?
JDT I have heard of them. But I haven’t focused on them. So you’re giving me that.
CG Of the CDs I am sending to you the work that Armstrong did with the women blues singers in the 1920s is particularly interesting and important. It is a phase of his work that is not well known. Teachout summarizes it in a couple of paragraphs.
I happened to find a set of cutouts on French Columbia some years ago. Most of those early women are totally obscure and even most jazz fans and scholars either are unaware of them or don’t pay much attention to that aspect of his oeuvre. Only Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey are known today but he recorded with a dozen or so women. Usually it is just the singer, Louis, and perhaps Clarence Williams on piano.
The quality of the women varies greatly. I like Clara Smith, Bertha Chippie Hill, Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey in particular. It was a very early phase of jazz and blues vocals. But what we hear is pure Armstrong in give and take exchanges with the singers. It was freelance studio and session work. He was hired as an accompanist so it mostly falls out of the Armstrong canon. Other than his time with King Oliver and his time fronting and recording with the Hot Five and Hot Seven during the 1920s it seems that Armstrong was mostly a sideman.
It was only after he hooked up with Joe Glaser in 1935 that he really became a star leading his own big band and later the All Stars. But if you want to hear pure Armstrong, for me, there is nothing that compares to the sessions with the women blues singers. Bessie started with and was influenced by Ma Rainer. Huntington Theatre is about to revive a production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. We plan to cover it.
JDT That’s what I want. I want to get at him in his beginnings as a jazz musician. So what you are talking about sounds fascinating. I really want to get in my mind and understanding the arc of his artistry. From the beginning, to the middle, to the end. How he changed his own music. How he changed jazz in general. I’ve been listening to later Louis. I found the W.C. Handy album which I really like. The singing with Velma Middleton. There are some snatches where they are just talking. There’s an interview with W.C on it. I like that stuff and I love that music. It’s so different to me from hearing him on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.
CG Louis Armstrong Sings the Music of W.C. Handy (Columbia) was the first jazz album I owned. It was a Christmas present from my uncle who owned a record store. I wore the grooves out.
JDT I bought it some time ago and love the CD. I lost it and then downloaded it about a week ago. I really love that album. His playing is amazing. His trumpet playing is always great but with the singing he’s the complete package to me. But I don’t know where that album stands in the breadth of his career. Is it a high point? A mid point? Or even considered by a some a low point. To me, because I don’t have an understanding of his earlier stuff, that seemed to me to be a high point.
CG Another key album is Ambassador Satch from when he was traveling around the world sponsored by the Department of State. In the post war era he was a musician diplomat for America. As was Duke Ellington. It’s one of his most popular albums.
JDT There is something else I wanted to mention. I have gotten a Fox Fellowship. It’s a grant administered by Theatre Commuinications Group (TCG). American Theatre Magazine is a publication of TCG. It’s a grant to study Shakespeare’s comedies and Marlowe’s tragedies. So it is an effort for me to relate more to classical comedies. To play roles like Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Malvolio in Twelth Night. Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. To have those roles as a part of the breadth of my career and craft. As well as the Othello’s the Richard’s the Macbeth’s. And also to study some Marlowe tragedies. So that is my grant. The way I am approaching it is to work with Jim Shapiro. He wrote the book 1599. He is a world renowned Shakespeare academic. I am working with him on those roles and the academic side of it. There is a physical comedy aspect and I am working with a clown teacher, Christopher Baynes. He is an actor and teaches clown. I am also going to try to pull Bill Irwin into this. I have worked with him and we have talked about how I can include him in this. Then there is Andrew Wade who is a voice and text person for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ll work with him as well. The institution I will be working with is Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) with whom I did Othello and Macbeth. It’s a two year grant at the end of which I do a comedy with TFANA. It will be directed by Arin Arbus who directed me in Macbeth. I have just started to do some of that work which needs to go on underneath everything else I am doing. I have my plate full.
CG When will we see you in a movie?
JDT I have been involved in a major movie but I can’t tell you until it comes out. I have been getting a bit more involved in film and television. There will be more coming down the road. I don’t know if they will be game changers or breakout things. We’ll see.