Terry Teachout Part Four
Taking Satchmo to the Next Level
By: Charles Giuliano and Terry Teachout - Sep 10, 2012
After opening night the Shakespeare & Company production of Terry Teachout's new play Satchmo at the Waldorf was "frozen." Teachout attended a number of performances and took notes for revisions working with director, Gordon Edelstein, and the actor, John Douglas Thompson, for the next production which opens at Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, in October. For this installment Teachout discusses the primary sources researched for the harsh language of Louis Armstrong and his gangster manager Joe Glaser.
Charles Giuliano What happens to Satchmo after its run at Long Wharf?
Terry Teachout I want this play to be performed as widely as possible. Ultimately by as many people as possible. But that’s not something I can make happen.
CG What is your level of vulnerability when you change hats and create work in the discipline you write about as a critic? I’m an art critic as well as an exhibiting artist. When I was included in a curated group show a critic wrote about ever other artist except me. When I asked him about it he said “You can be a critic or an artist but not both.”
TT You know. I’m middle aged. I have a pretty clear sense of self. I’ve been reviewed for a quarter of a century. I’ve written several books and now two operas. This play which has received, I don’t know, a dozen reviews. I’ve just been glancing at them. I read the Boston Globe review because, obviously, it was having a major effect on the life of the company. Who I want to please is John (Douglas Thompson who stars in Satchmo). And Gordon (Edelstein the director). Then the most important critics of all are the people who come to the show every night. Criticism doesn’t mean as much now as it did fifteen years ago. It doesn’t have as much of an effect. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t have as much of an effect on the life of a play.
CG Can you make or break a play?
TT All of the New York critics working in concert. Not that we ever do anything in concert, all might feel pretty much the same way about a marginal show. We can make it or break it. We cannot make or break a musical which is being very well promoted. I can considerably increase the prospects for a marginal show. For a show where the other reviews have been ambivalent. I make a big difference in regional theatre. I can sell a show out. Because of the nature of The Journal and its audience. That’s about as far as it goes. Acting alone I can’t kill any show. I guess I could kill a regional show. Remember that I choose the shows I see outside of New York. I cover all Broadway openings. That’s the deal with The Journal. I pick what I see other than that. I’m not usually wanting to send myself to see shows that I think are going to be awful. Because I only have so many slots. I don’t want to waste my fire. I also don’t want to sit through a bad show.
CG I’m 71.
TT So you remember when critics were great.
CG I remember when jazz was great. I got to hang out with the musicians.
TT I remember the days when musicians could make a living.
CG This summer at Tanglewood we heard Chris Botti, Mynton Marsalis and the Christian McBride Trio, Gary Burton with Chick Corea. With all respect we are in an era of academic jazz. You go to college to learn how to play jazz. Now an MFA is no longer a terminal degree. They are pushing doctorates in fine and performing arts for tenure track college positions. It is feeling too schooled.
TT Some of it is. We have players today who are as great as we’ve ever had. I would say that Gary Burton is one of them. He is one of the most underrated soloists and innovators in jazz. But, sure, it’s in the nature of things.
CG Isn’t that the essence of Armstrong’s fight with Miles and Dizzy? In the play there is discussion of Dizzy saying that the music has to be more progressive. Satchmo retorts that he had just one year of training on cornet at the Colored Waif’s Home and that he did pretty good with that. He was intuitive so what about that?
TT But a man with an enormously curious and thirsty ear. One of the most illuminating things for me while writing Pops was looking at the records he owned. The content of his collection is catalogued and he taped them. This guy listened to everything. He loved Chet Baker.
CG Who wouldn’t?
TT Well you know better than that. (laughs)
CG I was listening to a Chet Baker CD on my drive here today.
TT I love Chet Baker but we are talking about one of the most maligned musicians.
TT A lot of people didn’t like him but I thought he was a genius.
CG Why? Because he was a junkie?
TT They just think he’s too pretty. I don’t. I’m totally on board with Baker but so was Armstrong. He had albums by Thelonius Monk (emphasis) in his collection. When he talks about liking grand opera that’s not a joke. It’s just staggering what records he had.
CG Is “West End Blues” based on opera as you indicate in the play?
CG Can you illuminate that?
TT That opening cadenza is a kind of cross between coloratura singing and the coloratura derived cornet solos at the turn of the century by people like Herbert Clark. I was the first scholar to identify records in Armstrong’s collection by Herbert Clark.
(Herbert Lincoln Clarke, September 12, 1867–January 30, 1945, was a cornet player, feature soloist, bandmaster, and composer. His playing emphasized technical aptitude, warmth, and lyricism of tone. He also produced several method books that are still used by brass students.)
They clearly left their mark on that opening cadenza for “West End Blues.” Satchmo says “I put everything I knew into that motherfucker.” I made that line up but it an amalgam of a wide range of sources. The version we hear on record was almost certainly prepared in advance. I don’t mean to say he sat down and wrote it out but he worked it out. Played it on the gig and developed it into a set piece. And played it like that for the rest of his life.
CG What interest do you have in Jelly Roll Morton who is mentioned in the play?
CG As a part of last winter’s Armstrong seminar I listened to the Library of Congress (with Alan Lomax) series and sent all eight CDs to John and some jazz friends. I also urged John to read the Lomax book “Mr. Jelly Roll” as a part of his research. (CDs and a copy of the book are included in the Rounder Records boxed set.)
TT Morton is without doubt one of the key figures in jazz in the first half of the twentieth century. And he’s still enjoyable. There’s a lot of early jazz that, for various reasons, is not so easy for modern ears to listen to. Including the King Oliver recordings. Mainly because they were so poorly recorded that it is just hard to get back there. Morton is one of the very first jazz musicians whom we can receive as if he is contemporary. He doesn’t sound like a bebop band but the recording quality is good.
CG Are you talking about the Hot Peppers?
TT Yes. They are electrical recordings from 1926. He makes sense to us in a way that Oliver doesn’t.
CG What about Morton’s Library of Congress series? Have you listened to all that?
TT Yeah. Sure. Of course you have to take it with a stalactite of salt. (Both laugh)
CG I made a set of CDs to listen to as we drive around in the car. We were listening to one “Wining Boy” which just went on and on with dirty chorus after dirty chorus. Astrid said “This is the filthiest thing I have ever listened to.”
TT It does get your attention. Morton may be the first person who recorded language like that. It’s possible that he is. The big difference between Morton and Armstrong as autobiographers is that, and I really went into this, Armstrong is always trying to tell the truth as far as he knows it. After the age of eight, he is an extremely reliable chronological source for his own life. Morton wanted you to know how cool he was. He has to be approached with caution. That said, he is an immensely important primary source. Besides that, he is a lot of fun to listen to.
CG My favorite image from the Lomax book is the story of him driving the Lincoln while towing the Cadillac and getting stuck in a blizzard. I believe he was driving cross country to stay with his sister in California.
TT Yes he was. It breaks your heart. He too, like Joe Oliver, ran out of luck and Armstrong had all the luck. He was a genius and a good man.
CG You are a white man writing dialogue for a black man. Can you talk about that?
TT Everybody asks about that.
CG There are such loaded racial terms used by both Armstrong and Glaser. What sensitivities do you have walking through that?
TT I didn’t really think about it. I had internalized Armstrong’s speaking voice through listening to the tapes. I found it quite easy to write the way he talked. It just wasn’t hard for me. I some cases I found it difficult to write it down so that it would be easy for an actor to speak. What I did was look at how August Wilson renders this kind of speech. Do you need apostrophes? Do you leave out the “g’s”? That kind of thing. And I used him as a model. But I didn’t use him as a model for the language. Glaser was harder because I had to make him up. There’s one, ten minute, radio interview with Glaser which survives. And he’s being very careful.
CG William Styron got savaged when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). He was attacked for the audacity of a white man trying to write in a black voice.
TT Times have changed.
CG So you think it’s a period issue?
TT That’s part of it. It should be perfectly obvious to anybody who has read my book that I know how Louis Armstrong talked.
CG You don’t have that language in the book.
TT You don’t have it in a continuous stream but you have plenty of quotations which contain very strong language. John didn’t boggle for a moment. Neither one of us uses that kind of language over dinner. He recognized that it was authentic and correct. He just sailed into it. Again, he had a harder time with Glaser. Technically.
Dennis Neal, who performed this play for the first time in Orlando, grew up in a neighborhood of New York where everybody talked like Glaser. So he got Glaser’s voice immediately. It was Armstrong he had to work on. Nowadays, of course, the world is full of racial sensitivities.
Here is something that may interest you. During my very long book tour I expected somebody to ask me “What business do you have writing a book about Louis Armstrong?” Nobody did. Never once. They just assumed that I had walked the walk and could therefore talk the talk. That’s the same way with this play. I spent a lot of time revising this play to make Armstrong’s language consistent with itself. Everyone has their own grammar. Everyone has their own way of speaking. I put a lot of time into that. I revised and changed it painstakingly when Dennis first performed it. My goal was to have it so natural that an actor could simply read it off and he wouldn’t stumble. There wouldn’t be any idioms that seemed alien to him.
CG I can speak from my own experience as a jazz critic during the late 1960s and 1970s. It was challenging to walk into dressing rooms and talk with musicians. You never knew what to expect.
TT Of course but that was a different time.
CG Once I was having dinner with Roland Kirk and members of his band. Rahsaan (a blind, multi reeds player) was rocking back and forth when he went into a tirade about “the motherfucking white jazz critics.” I just wrote it down while the band members were falling off their chairs trying not to laugh out loud. You could hang with Miles as long as you were cool.
TT Did not presume.
CG It was tough.
TT One of my favorite stories about that is one Bill Evans (piano player with Miles) told. He was playing with the sextet and very nervous because he’s a very white guy.
CG There was a lot of heat on Miles because of Evans in the band.
TT Miles, who was a very rough teaser, came up to Bill one day and said “Man, I haven’t told you this before. But you’re going to have to fuck everybody in the band.” He said that with a perfectly straight face. Evans sits there for a moment and says “Miles, you know, I just don’t think I can do that.” Miles burst into ecstatic laughter. He got it.
CG Miles was wonderfully generous and I treasure the time I had with him.
TT I’ll tell you what though. The Miles speeches (in Satchmo) are mostly based on what he said. There is one thing there I adapted from the most shocking thing that he was reported to say. I think it was Ralph Gleason who heard it. It might have been Leonard Feather. One or the other. This white, teenaged kid, with stars in his eyes, comes up to Miles between sets and says “Mr. Davis how did you ever learn to play like that?” Miles looked at him and said “By…” That’s how I got the line in the play about how Louis makes it tough for all of us by "…. to make a living." That was the source for that.
CG What state is the play in now? Are you making daily revisions?
TT The play is frozen.
CG Do you see it every night?
TT Gordon has said to me always skip nights. If possible two nights in a row. Whatever he says I do. We froze the play, except for one line that had to be added three or four days before opening. Then we started taking notes for Long Wharf. I’m starting to execute those now. We’ve seen a lot of performances. We have an idea of what’s working and what isn’t working. Things we couldn’t have fixed in the later stages of rehearsal. We’re tightening it a bit. We hope to take about three minutes out of the first half. It’s running between 80 and 83 minutes.
CG What are you learning from this process?
TT The first day of rehearsals Gordon said “Why don’t we make Miles a character?” That was pretty exciting.
CG That was his idea?
TT He and John thought it up. They didn’t say “You need to do it.” They said “What do you think? Might that work?” I said let me go home and see. So I wrote the speeches. When we started cutting there were things that we cut on the spot and I didn’t think twice about doing that. I’m not sensitive about that. That’s part of being a journalist. You realize that if it’s got to be shorter you make it shorter. If they’ve never heard it they don’t know what it was. We’ve done this for the operas too so I understood that. The two most interesting things that are happening to me are, first, I’m watching a director at work. Gordon has opened the bag to me. He knows that I might like to direct, myself, some day.
CG Another hat.
TT I staged the first workshop reading of this in Florida about a year and a half ago. I thought, maybe I can do this. So Gordon will lean over to me and explain why he did this. Or, this is how he did this. I’m paying very close attention. The other thing is watching John’s performance evolve from night to night. And through rehearsals. We don’t get to do that in my business. We see a show once. If it’s a play I’m interested in I’ll seek out a regional production of it to see whether I’m responding to the performance or the play. John’s performance changes every night in response to the audiences which also vary widely.
What we discovered early in the run of the play is that there are basically two kinds of audiences. They either receive the play as a serious comedy or as a funny drama.
CG Do you see it as a comedy?
TT No. When I wrote the play, before we performed it in Orlando, I thought it might have five laughs in it. I thought I knew where they were. For that first performance, for two thirds of its length, it was received as a comedy. When it gets serious the laughs would just turn off. I was flabbergasted. Flummoxed. So I knew this when I came to Lenox. I said to John, “Your’e going to get some laughs.” He said “Don’t tell me where they are. I don’t want to play for laughs.” So he also was staggered during the first performance.
Teachout Part One
Teachout Part Two
Teachout Part Three
Teachout Part Five