Thursday August 30, 2012

LENOX -- It is late at night, literally and figuratively, in Terry Teachout's "Satchmo at the Waldorf" but it's a night the play's central figure, jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Arm strong, is not going into gently.

Tired and worn after performing with his All-Stars for an audience at New York's famed Waldorf Astoria hotel -- his last performance -- the seriously ailing Armstrong (played with vigor, conviction and rich nuance by John Douglas Thompson in the play's intelligently crafted New England premiere at Shakes peare & Company's Tina Packer Play house) still has more than a few licks left as he reflects on an improbable life that began in "black" Story ville, on the edge of New Orleans' notorious whites-only red-light district, on Aug. 4, 1901, and ended July 6, 1971 at his home in the Corona section of Queens, N.Y. where he died of a heart attack.

Just how far this artist (who knocked The Beatles out of their No. 1 perch with his celebrated recording of "Hello, Dolly," a song he detested, he says in Teachout's play) had come could be seen in the assembly of pallbearers at his funeral, a virtual Who's Who of show business, Teachout tells us in his authoritative biography, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." Walter Cronkite hosted a CBS special about Armstrong's life on the night of his funeral and the New York Times ran a 4,000-word obituary on its front page.

But mortality lurks in the shadows of Matthew Adelson's atmospheric, moody lighting on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage.

Armstrong was playing this two-week gig at the Waldorf against his doctor's advice. He had an upstairs suite so he wouldn't have to travel back and forth between the Waldorf and his home in Queens but for Armstrong it was emblematic of the 70-year-journey he had taken from Storyville. But in the elevator on the way down to the club room, Armstrong soils himself and is forced to go back upstairs to change. It's a private embarrassment; a loss of dignity; a reminder along with the pills on his dressing room table and the oxygen tank standing in a cormer of the room that time is not on his side. The play is set in March, four months before his death.

That he is performing at all is an assertion of will. Music, he says, is his life. "If I can't play no more, what am I?" Thompson's Armstrong asks knowing the answer to this rhetorical question very well.

"Every time I play, I tell a story," he says at another point. The story he tells here is rich and evocative, an anecdotal chronicle of America at its most and its least welcoming.

"Satchmo at the Wakdorf" also is as much about Arm strong's business manager, Joe Glaser, a heavily mob-connected promoter and producer who formed Associated Booking chiefly to advance Armstrong's career. They were joined at the hip.

"Everything he said, I did," Armstrong says. Armstrong played, made music, while Glaser (played by Thompson as tough, brash, no-nonsense businessman), made Arm strong's business decisions, booked Armstrong's engagements, hired and fired personnel, leaving Armstrong free to do what he did best.

"We're the same he and I," Glaser explains. "We know each other."

What Armstrong didn't know was the deal Glaser made with the Chicago mob, a deal that shut Armstrong out of Glaser's estate, an omission in Glaser's will that caused Armstrong bitter pain and deep resentment.

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Much is made in the "Satchmo at the Waldorf" about Armstrong's singing. But listen closely to the soundscape sound designer John Gromada has created and you get a keen sense of Armstrong's distinctive artistry with the horn, particularly in his early years.

Armstrong saw no shame in performing to please his audience, his white audience. It was his pride but it cost him. He lost much of his blck audience over the years. Peers, colleagues, critics derided him for pandering to his audience. Dizzy Gillespie considered him an Uncle Tom. Brash, idiosyncratic newcomer Miles Davis (played by Thompson with biting contempt and dark eerie evocation in two gratuitous scenes that suggest a whole other play) turned his back on audiences and, in playing the music he wanted to play, won them over. 

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Gordon Edelstein has directed "Satchmo at the Waldorf" with clarity, discipline and insight.

Teachout's ear for dialogue rings true and his use of Glaser as a second character is not as awkward a device as it may seem, especially in the hands of an actor with Thompson's uncommon skills.

Teachout and Thompson's Armstrong makes no apologies for his life, his career. He is keenly aware of his failings, particularly in his personal life -- his bouts with marijuana and the law, his womanizing and previous marriages before his marriage to Lucille Wilson, his wife of nearly 30 years. He minimizes those failings by not dwelling on them, by joking about them; the bad little boy within the man. And it is very much the man who shaped, as much as he is shaped by, the artist that we see, especially in the final image of Armstrong bathed in a fading light, standing in his darkening dressing room, holding on to his his worn leather valise as if it contained all his possessions, a boy from Storyville ("where all the whores come from," he says with layered simplicity earlier on) all grown up, living at the Waldorf, entertaining white fans of means.

"I lived my life," he says with proud emphasis on the word "lived." Indeed.