Terry Teachout Two
Refining Satchmo at the Waldorf
By: Charles Giuliano and Terry Teachout - 09/06/2012
Terry Teachout’s first play Satchmo at the Waldorf, starring John Douglas Thompson in dual roles of Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, with two cameo scenes as Miles Davis, is a work in progress. During just three weeks of rehearsal at Shakespeare & Company there were changes including the addition of Davis as well as cuts to make the one man play fit into one 80 minute act.
The S&Co. production was “frozen” after opening night but Teachout has attended a number of the performances and taken notes. Working with director, Gordon Edelstein, those revisions and rewrites will be a part of the Long Wharf Theatre production which will have its official national media opening in October.
The current production was limited to “regional” media which oddly included The Boston Globe which sent a stringer. The Globe’s rave review has resulted in a sold out run. Most of the reviews, including mine, were also raves. But with a caveat that this is a play in development which may, or may not, reach New York. Many feel that it deserves to be seen on Broadway but that entails many ifs. Vaguely, Teachout referred to a lot of interest by regional theatres.
In a dialogue with Teachout I voiced concerns about the play and the book it is based on. Transcribing the text I realize that perhaps there was some misunderstanding. Armstrong was widely criticized by other jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, as an “Uncle Tom.” It derived from his familiar clowning, bug eyed, stage demeanor. This is the Armstrong most of us knew from his performances, films, and TV appearances. It’s what we saw on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I asked why we were not allowed to see that in the play? Teachout assumed that I meant that the play should include either projected clips of his performance or the actor simulating a performance including faking playing trumpet. That was never what I had in mind. I meant catching a glimpse of that popular persona in contrast to the private, off stage, Armstrong whom we see in the play.
It is indicative of how, when you press hot buttons, an interview becomes unpredictable. There is risk taking involved. The person being asked the questions is always the authority on their subject. It is their game, their bat and ball, their rules. A pressing interviewer may be a rude and ignorant intruder.
If you stand in, and take the backlash, the blow back is fascinating. When you throw high heat, and a bit of chin music, the brush back question may take that person out of their comfort zone with often fascinating results.
Terry Teachout The starting point for Satchmo at the Waldorf is a passage in George Wein’s autobiography “Myself Among Others” from the last summer of Armstrong’s life. He was having the big birthday party at the Newport Jazz Festival, the summer of 1970. Wein is filming him for a documentary. Between takes Armstrong said to him quite a bit of what I have him saying in the play. Talking about how (Joe) Glaser (his manager) had treated him like a Golden Goose. He hadn’t left him any shares in Associated Booking. He spoke to Wein with the utmost bluntness and anger. He felt that Glaser had betrayed him. This is the only time he ever said anything like this on the record. I haven’t found it in the tapes. But there is no question he said this to Wein. There was somebody else in the room. This struck me forcibly when I was writing the book. (“Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong”) Because it was so sharply contradictory to his public statements about Glaser. When I got the idea to write the play this is what came to me.
Charles Giuliano Do you recall how it came about?
TT I did the book tour in the fall of 2009. When it was over I went to Florida to do a residency at Rollins College. Which I do often in January/ February.
CG That’s nice.
TT It is nice. I work for it but it’s a great place. I got an e mail from John Schreiber who now runs the New Jersey Performing Arts Center but who had been a theatrical producer. He was one of the producers of Jelly’s Last Jam and Elaine Stritch’s one woman show. I didn’t know him from Adam. In fact I didn’t recognize his name. I looked it up and figured out who he was. He wrote to me at my blog and said “I read your book and liked it very much. I didn’t know Armstrong but I knew Glaser. I wonder if you have ever thought about writing a play based on this book or getting somebody to do so.” I hadn’t thought about it. The thought never occurred to me. I had never thought about writing any play. I had just written an opera. But that’s a different kettle of fish. I thought, well, this is interesting. This man knows what he’s talking about. Here I am at Rollins College. For once I have a little time on my hands. Why don’t I see what will come out? I sat down and four days later I had the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf.
CG Describe those four days.
TT I don’t remember those four days.
CG Nine to five?
TT I don’t have any memory. I just sat down and worked like a mad man. My wife knew what I was doing. (laughs) She sort of stayed out of the way and then it was done.
CG Writing dialogue was very different. What was your premise?
TT I’ll tell you exactly what I had.
CG Correct me if I’m right or wrong. There had to be the (Governor) Faubus. There had to be Glaser.
TT Right but I didn’t think of that. Now that I’ve written two more plays, and another opera libretto, I sort of know how this works. The first thing that comes to me is a stage picture. In this case it was the next to last picture in the book; the picture of Armstrong sitting in a chair in his dressing room in Las Vegas, six months before he died. Holding the trumpet in his hands. The tuxedo jacket is off. He looks old and he looks tired.
CG He was my age by the way.
TT He was a well worn 69-year-old when the picture was taken. It came to my mind, in a flash, that this is where the play will happen, in a dressing room at the Waldorf. He’s old, he’s tired, and he’s thinking about him and Glaser. Then the first line of the play “I shit myself tonight” came to me.
CG Reviewers have been talking about that line as gratuitous.
TT It’s not gratuitous in the slightest. This is the way Louis Armstrong talked. I’m utterly befuddled by why people are surprised by this language. I know how he talked. Perhaps better than anybody else.
CG Have you read the reviews?
TT A couple of them. Everybody mentions the language. Some people like it and some people don’t. Believe me there is nothing in this play that you wouldn’t encounter in a David Mamet play, or any action movie. (Speaking, slowly, and emphatically in a soft voice) It is the way that Louis Armstrong talked. The reason why it’s there at the top of the play is because it’s true. He didn’t say that sentence but he could have. He said lots of sentences like that. It is to tell the audience immediately this is not the man you saw on The Ed Sullivan Show. This is the real man.
CG Why don’t you show us the Ed Sullivan Louis Armstrong? It’s a problem with the play. We hear about him being accused of being an Uncle Tom but we don’t see that. For a younger audience that is not familiar with Armstrong they don’t know that.
TT I think they are seeing it in the performance. They are seeing a person who is not like the black public figure whom they are accustomed to seeing. I think they see it quite well. I’m not showing a performance in the play because I don’t want to do that. I don’t think that works well in a one person play. But I have integrated performance well. It’s not the center of the play.
CG But you have deliberately not allowed us to see that; the shucking, jiving, laughing, handkerchief waving, clowning Armstrong.
TT I don’t agree with you. I think you see a lot of that in the performance. John has discovered in himself the capacity to be a comedian. He’s studied Armstrong. And I think it’s perfectly visible. But I certainly don’t want to show a stage performance. I don’t want to show a man pretending to play trumpet. Nothing is sillier.
CG We saw it in Fela.
TT Did you see John lip synching in Othello?
CG But I kept looking at the actor in Fela wondering whether or not he was playing tenor sax.
TT What I have in mind is the plethora of one person plays about musicians. They are either singers, and the person is imitating them at great length, or they’re trying to mime some performance. I don’t think that works.
CG Can you think of a music bio film or play which has been successful?
TT Not one where the performer didn’t have musical skills. The Ray Charles film works because Jamie Foxx knows how to play piano. He’s playing piano just like Clint Eastwood knows how to play piano. When you see him at home playing piano for In the Line of Fire. Otherwise I don’t think it works. I really don’t think it works on stage. This play works in its own terms or not at all. I hope it contains sufficient information, and lots of people have told me they thought it did. So somebody who doesn’t know anything, other than in the most general way who Armstrong is, will find it intelligible. They will be able to follow it and understand what the nature of the conflict is. There’s a sense in which this play isn’t about Armstrong, although it’s a true story. It’s about the relationship between two people. What (director) Gordon (Edelstein) says “It’s a play about love and betrayal. These are the people about whom it happens to be.”
I don’t think we need to see a film clip of what Louis Armstrong was like on The Ed Sullivan Show. John’s performance conveys that he is this kind of person. But his language tells you that you’re seeing something altogether different.
So I don’t think in any way that the language is gratuitous.
CG We would like to know more about the music.
TT There is an extended scene when Armstrong discusses “West End Blues.”
CG That’s the only example.
TT This play is 80 minutes long. What do you want it to be, a lecture recital?
CG There is just that one little vignette.
TT That one little vignette is about ten minutes long.
CG It’s a wonderful moment in the play.
TT What do you want this to be? I’m not interested in writing a lecture recital. I’m interested in writing a drama.
CG I’m interested in what you want it to be.
TT But that’s what I mean. I want it to be a play. To have conflict. To illuminate Armstrong’s music. But that’s only a part of what it does. Otherwise, read my book. That would be my advice to people who want to know more about that. The purpose of this play is not explicitly to tell people that Louis Armstrong is the most important jazz person of the 20th century. I think it does that.
CG That’s not its mandate.
TT No. The mandate is to tell a story.
CG Let’s talk about the difference between the book and the play. The book is full of all that detail about the music with a richness of critical analysis. It is also woven through with fantastic stories. Having done that, you now put on a different hat as a playwright. How does that happen?
TT You apply the rules of playwriting. A play is about an event. The practical nuts and bolts about how to write a play. It’s not just about somebody sitting around talking. The essence of how a play is structured was most neatly summed up by David Mamet. Every scene of every effective play answers three questions. What does the hero want? Why does he want it now? What happens if he doesn’t get it?
This, and the fact that the play is initiated by an event, in this case Armstrong’s last gig, is what propels the play through time. It articulates time and engages the audience. So that they want to know, at every moment, what is going to happen next. This is what creates tension.
Conflict is at the center of every play. It’s very hard to create it in a one person play. It’s intrinsically difficult. Conflict is usually created by the conflict or two or more people on the stage at the same time. The first draft of this play contained only Armstrong. The other events in the play were talked about and described. Glaser was dead center. But I didn’t initially have the idea of having the same actor play both parts.
CG Pretty challenging.
TT I knew that it would be.
CG I think John brings it off.
TT I think so too. I knew that if I got it right it would be like throwing raw meat at an actor. He would see it and say “What an opportunity.”
And, I should tell you, this wasn’t my idea either. I showed a draft of the play to a good friend who is very theatre savvy and knows my work as a critic. I said “What do you think?” She said “I think it works. I think it’s producible. But I also know that you like one person shows in which the actor plays more than one character. Why didn’t you do that here?” As soon as those words were out of her mouth I thought Glaser. I couldn’t wait to get her off the phone. So I could sit down and start writing.
CG Miles (Davis)?
TT Miles came three weeks ago.
CG Does Miles work?
TT He will.
CG So far the critics don’t seem to think so.
TT He will. Remember those two scenes (with Miles) were written in the first week of rehearsals. They work by sharpening scenes. He will work by being more clearly identified in the first scene. When we inserted this scene we were at a stage in the memorization process where John had all he could do to memorize the scenes. We couldn’t write additional transitional dialogue to set the first scene up so everybody knows what is happening.
CG He was talking to me the other day about getting just three houra a night of sleep because he was running all the new dialogue and changes through his head.
TT It was monstrous. When we started cutting the play in the last week of rehearsal, which is what you do, we cut blocks of it. But we couldn’t write in new transitional language. There just wasn’t time for him to rehearse it. We will do that for Long Wharf. Once these changes are made, both to the speeches themselves, and to the surrounding material, and once I reposition the material which comes before the first Miles speech, changing some of it from being about (Dizzy) Gillespie to being about Miles, and then Miles’ first sentence in the revised version will identify him.
CG May I ask you a question about Armstrong’s music. In the book you telescoped his recordings with the blues women (1920s) into just a half a page of a 300 page book. It seemed like you dismissed that work. It wasn’t clarified how those sessions came about and there were quite a few. Were they just gigs he picked up and got paid for by the day? It doesn’t seem that there is an emotional investment in that phase of his work.
TT Every biographer has to make choices about what to leave out. There is no alternative.
CG I’m asking a personal question. What do you feel about that work? He recorded with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox.
TT It’s an important stage in his development as an artist and growth as a soloist. Some of them were dead center of the highest quality. The collaborations with Bessie Smith.
CG There aren’t many just five or six.
TT There aren’t many. He might have done his best playing on some of the other records. The problem with these records is that they’re not mostly with Bessie Smith. They are with singers who are not themselves interesting.
CG He recorded with Ma Rainey.
TT He also recorded with Trixie Smith.
CG Trixie Smith, Clara Smith, Hociel Thomas, they’re interesting.
TT They’re fine. They don’t interest me and I love blues.
CG They don’t seem to interest any jazz writers.
TT This British guy, and I just went blank on his name, who wrote a book published by Scarecrow, wrote a side by side analysis of all of Armstrong’s pre 1929 recordings. (Brooks, Edward: “The Young Louis Armstrong on Records: A Critical Survey of the Early Recordings, 1923-1928. “ Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2002.)
He has every one of these sides. It’s really funny because he writes these deadpan British synopses of the lyrics to each blues song. I kept asking myself, does he know he’s funny?
CG There are jazz people and then there are blues people. The blues women fall in between. For blues people it’s all about male singers accompanying themselves with guitars. Delta blues that then goes electric in Chicago. Or the Texas blues players like Lightning Hopkins and T Bone Walker. The women are urban and worked with bands.
TT They’re theatrical entertainers.
CG They are on the bottom of the jazz paradigm and don’t morph over to interest the blues purists with the exception perhaps of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. They just seem to get hung out to dry. I think it’s a wonderful and fascinating genre of music. It’s the birth of women as jazz singers
TT Have you read Elijah Wald “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” and his book “A Very Short Introduction to the Blues”? Elijah has a more sophisticated view of the blues than any scholar who has come along. He integrates all of those different strands into a single understanding of the blues to the extent to which it resembles jazz. For me, it was a simple matter of not wanting to write a 500 page book. It felt strongly about that. I prefer biographies that say what they have to say with more efficiency.
CG So you could have gone into it.
TT Of course I could, just as I could have said more about the post 1960s recordings. Every biography is an act of criticism through decision making. I devoted a whole chapter to the year 1928. I didn’t have to do that. I thought I think I need to do this. I was much more concise about the blues recordings and a lot of the Hot Five stuff than I might have been. Just because you can’t tell everything you know and you shouldn’t. I also put a lot of interesting stuff into the footnotes. For footnote hounds. I wanted the main narrative of the book, like this play, to be a story based on primary sources.
It’s true and written in a way that’s musically informed as it can only be if you’re a musician. But I also wanted it to be completely intelligible to a reader like my mother. I felt that was exactly what needed to be done.
As Michael Cogswell of the Armstrong archives said to me “Your book is a narrative biography of Armstrong.” That’s exactly what I was trying to do. Since my book there have been three or four important monographs about specific aspects of Armstrong’s life. Like Ricky Riccardi’s book about Armstrong’s later years. (“What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years”) Armstrong is important enough that there is going to be a whole literature that will spring up around him. There will be a dozen full length studies looking at different aspects of his life. This isn’t that. This is a narrative biography. So it is selective. It has to be selective. Otherwise you get lost in the kudzu. It’s just what you have to do.