Satchmo at the Waldorf
by John Stoltenberg
It is the morning after I saw a compelling and telling bioplay about Louis Armstrong just opened at Mosaic Theater Company, Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf. I have my earbuds in; I’m logged into streaming music; I am listening to tune after familiar tune as recorded by this legendary singer and trumpeter. And something unexpected is going on. The dramatic revelations that unfolded in the Atlas Lang Theater last night are resounding between my ears like aftershocks from some seismic unsettling.
I never realized how embedded in the soundtrack of my younger years Armstrong’s crystalline cornet and gravelly vocals have been. I had forgotten about him, truth to tell. He was of a time in my life and pop culture that is long gone. And that is a strange realization, made stranger still by what I experienced last night, which in retrospect was as ear-opening as it was eye-opening.
The profound takeaway from Satchmo at the Waldorf—which features an extraordinary, tour-de-force solo performance by Craig Wallace—is that the legendary entertainer I am now recalling, the singer-musician I am now listening to, was someone I never knew. And probably, given the givens, someone I never could have known…until last night.
I grew up among white people who watched The Lawrence Welk Show and Your Hit Parade on black-and-white television. When we heard Armstrong on the radio or saw him on TV, we enjoyed him as another entertainer, someone with a big toothy grin and a happy lilt in his raspy voice who seemed nice (the Minnesota state adjective) and whom we liked. He was someone welcome in our home without hesitation, electronically. He was obviously someone who was a Negro, the word used then (instead of “colored”) with respectful reserve. But in point of fact he blended into our white cultural soundscape as if he wasn’t.
So about that tectonic tremor.
I entered the Lang knowing nothing about Armstrong’s life, particularly his life as a black entertainer in a white-privileging country and a white-dominated industry. I might have surmised that American racism had something to do with his career (duh), but I didn’t think to, I didn’t need to. Now that I do know something of Armstrong’s life and how he handled what he was up against—as selected and artfully crafted for the stage by his biographer Treachout—the way I hear and think about Armstrong has completely changed. And as entertaining as Satchmo at the Waldorf was—funny; fast-moving; phenomenally designed, directed, and acted; five-star fantastic—the crux of the show has left me kind of shaken.
I have heard Armstrong’s signature tune “When You’re Smiling” (“…the whole world smiles with you”), countless times. Now I cannot but hear in its strains the steely coaching of Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s longtime manager—a white man, Jewish, with ties to the mob—who instructed him to cater to white audiences’ tastes. Armstrong did as he was told. And he was very good at it. Made millions at it. Made millions happy.
Episodically Wallace slips out of character as Armstrong, steps outside the Waldorf dressing room where the play is set, and shifts into the character of Glaser. Then the most amazing change happens in his voice. As Armstrong, Wallace speaks convincingly in a “sawmill” voice (one hopes no vocal cords are harmed in this production); suddenly he speaks in Glaser’s authoritative voice (commendably done without caricature). In Armstrong and Glaser’s back-and-forth monologues, Treachout traces a tale of a mutually remunerative friendship in which, we learn, Armstrong’s trust was grievously misplaced. Ultimately it is a troubling narrative of a relationship riven by a complex underlying racial tension that was then common in the entertainment industry—and that now my ears cannot but hear as I listen to Armstrong sing.
Episodically Wallace also slips on shades and shifts into the laid-back character of trumpeter Miles Davis, his voice taking on a third distinctive timbre. We learn that Davis was sharply critical of what he viewed as Armstrong’s pandering to white audiences, considered him an Uncle Tom. In Armstrong and Davis’s back-and-forth monologues, Treachout not only traces a dismaying narrative of the bitter rivalry between these two but also raises pointed questions about what it means to be a black artist in America, particularly the career penalty for any black celebrity who speaks out against racial injustice. One cannot listen today to Armstrong’s utterly apolitical recordings and blithely infer that that was then but what’s now is new and different. Cf. Colin Kaepernick’s decision sit out the national anthem.
Treachout’s script eloquently gives voice to Armstrong’s private musings on American racism but touches only briefly on his public display of politics: Once Armstrong in an interview expressed anger at the derogation of black school girls in an ugly incident during Eisenhower-era integration. The script’s attention is quickly diverted to jokiness about the coarse language Armstrong used in the interview. Nonetheless the point lands that even as Armstrong’s livelihood was dependent on pleasing white audiences, his conscience was not whitewashed.
There’s actually a whole lot of coarse language in Satchmo at the Waldorf. The one nit I have to pick about the script is its over-reliance on profanity for its humor. The coarse language per se is not bothersome; it serves to establish Armstrong’s earthy character and often connects the audience audibly as comedic. But too often the playwright makes a crutch of it for laughs, as though he couldn’t think of anything funnier. The opening night audience’s nervous appreciation of it seemed to become more self-conscious than genuinely amused as the show went on.
What makes Mosaic Theater’s superb production of Satchmo at the Waldorf a peak theatergoing experience is its transformational force: In spotlighting the life of this legendary black artist of an era gone by, it literally alters perception of the culture we live in now, helps us to see, helps us to listen, helps us to know. The choice of this play to kick off its second season heralds Mosaic’s essential mission with clarion brilliance—not unlike Satchmo’s own horn.