Author turns Armstrong biography into play about musical icon

Jazz great Louis Armstrong gestures to the crowd at the Atlanta Jazz Festival in Atlanta, in this June 6, 1966 photo.
Jazz great Louis Armstrong gestures to the crowd at the Atlanta Jazz Festival in Atlanta, in this June 6, 1966 photo. The ASSOCIATED PRESS

Terry Teachout is a prolific arts writer who calls his work as theater critic for the Wall Street Journal his “day job.” He has written biographies of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, libretti for operas, he blogs for About Last Night and contributes a biweekly column about the Arts in America to the Journal.

His first play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” is a mediation by the great American jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971, looking back on his life just before his death. The play has been well received in numerous productions around the country, including Off Broadway.

B Street Theater opens a production of “Satchmo a t the Waldorf” next week in its B3 Theater with Jahi Kearse starring as the musical legend. Teachout spoke by phone from a car driven by his wife somewhere in Massachusetts as they headed to a theater performance.

Q: What inspired you to write a play about Louis Armstrong?

A: The order of events was I had written my biography of him and it came out a month or so after the premiere of my first stage work, which was the libretto for an opera. I wasn’t thinking about writing a play, though I was, in a sense, preparing myself for it. After the book came out, I got an email saying you really should consider writing a play based on your book. I didn’t recognize the man’s name, but I looked it up and it turned out he was a theatrical producer. I thought, “Gee he knows something, maybe I should give this a try.”

A month and half later a coin dropped in my head and I figured out how to approach this. I think I wrote the first draft in three or four days. There followed a year of editing, you understand, but it flowed pretty easily at the beginning.

Q: How did you decide on the specifics of the play? There are many aspects of Armstrong’s life you could have highlighted.

A: There are a number of entry points into Armstrong’s life. I knew he had been working late in life on another volume of autobiography. It would make sense to have him looking back on his life at the end of his life. As the for the idea of focusing on the relationship with (Joe) Glaser, that really was the central inspiration of the play. In writing my biography I was fascinated by the complexity of this relationship and I also knew that we don’t know much about Joe Glaser – mob guys don’t keep diaries. So things I had only been able to speculate about in the context of a primary source biography, once I moved into the realm of fiction I would have a lot more freedom to talk about. Things that I thought might have happened and to get a stronger handle on the nature of their relationship.

Q: Armstrong’s public presence, especially later in his life, has been complex one to parse out.

A: I think that’s generational, especially for black people of your age. The idea that people had about Armstrong in the early ’60s was that he was this smiling Uncle Tom, and I knew from writing the biography and having listened to his private tapes and knowing a lot about him that he wasn’t like that at all. Part of why I wrote the biography was to teach a new generation what Armstrong was really like and in a sense the play dramatizes that. It tries to show that far from being an Uncle Tom, he’s a man of real integrity capable of great anger, somebody who really knew the score, and to put that Armstrong on stage and let people balance that against the ideas they have about him. He’s not just a great artist, but I think a great man – but he’s not a man of our time – he was born in 1901.

Armstrong was very disturbed by the fact that by the ’60s he had essentially lost his black audience and he didn’t understand why – he didn’t think he deserved it – he thought he was still playing on a very high level and he certainly didn’t see himself as a Tom, so there’s a kind of tragic aspect, too – as I think there is any long-lived artist – who lives long enough for the next generation and the generation after that take new views of him.

Q: You’ve effectively crossed over from critic to artist; what’s that been like for you?

A: It’s surprise is what it is. When you write your first play well into your 50s and you never thought about a writing a play and suddenly it takes off – that’s quite a thing, and the fact that I’m also a drama critic – that’s my day job – makes it all the more gratifying. We’re not supposed to be able to do that, you know! I’ve fired a new stage on the rocket in a fairly late point in my life – it’s a thrilling thing.

Q: Have you learned anything being inside of the process?

A: Not from the writing of the play as much as being involved in its productions. It’s caused me (even before I decided to try my hand at directing) to see what a director does with greater clarity. That’s the element of theatrical production that is hardest for the outsider to see. The director’s invisible. You’re listening to an orchestra play, but you don’t see a conductor.

I got to see how it worked, so when I put my other hat back on as a critic and I would see that end process taking place on other plays, I felt that I understood the director’s function more completely than I could have understood it had I not had this experience. I don’t know if it’s made me a better critic or not; that’s for other people to say – but from my point of view I feel as if I see more and understand more than I ever did before.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Satchmo at the Waldorf

What: Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a one-man play about Louis Armstrong looking back his life and relationship to manager Joe Glaser. With Jahi Kearse as Armstrong.

When: Previews at 7 p.m. Aug. 17, 18 and 19. Opens 8 p.m. Aug. 20. Regular performances: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 17

Where: B3 Theater, 2711 B St., Sacramento.

Tickets: Previews – $18. Regular – $26-$38, $8 Student rush.

Information: 916-443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org