With a sandpapery rasp in his voice and crystalline high Cs emanating from his trumpet, Louis Armstrong changed American music with his happy-go-lucky stage persona and his incomparable musicianship. But his backstage life isn’t as well known or understood. As he brought his brand of popular jazz to mainstream, primarily white audiences during the most turbulent decades of racial unrest in the United States during the 20th century, Armstrong became an essential part of the American cultural fabric.
But who was he as a man? Who shaped him?
Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, reimagined one relationship from his research for his 2009 book, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” which became the basis for his 2011 play “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Making its Washington premiere at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District of Columbia, “Satchmo” opens Mosaic Theater Company’s second season with a clarion call.
Calling his single actor, three-character play a “work of fiction freely based on fact,” Teachout mines the intimate but inscrutable relationship between Armstrong and his shrewd Jewish manager, Joe Glaser, a small-time promoter with ties to the Chicago mob before being hired by Armstrong in 1935.
With Armstrong’s growing fame and talent, Glaser built one of the most lucrative artist-manager businesses of the mid-20th century, but his shady past and ties to Al Capone — and weakness for underage girls — haunted him throughout his life.
Told primarily in Armstrong’s voice, during his final gig at the Waldorf Astoria in New York just months before his death in 1971, this is an intimate picture of this iconic figure. It includes his flaws — a penchant for smoking weed before gigs, a love of women other than his wife, an ability to cuss out anybody. But there’s also Satchmo’s unassailable loyalty — to his wife and his manager, as well as to his audience.
Life wasn’t easy for young Louis growing up in New Orleans. He was the son of a prostitute and never had a father. By age 6 he was a delivery boy and junk picker for the Karnofskys, a Jewish family that warmly took him under their wing. He spent many a dinner at their table, learning Yiddish and some Hebrew songs (one, the Shabbat table song “Yedid Nefesh,” is sung in this production), and the Karnofskys gave him the $5 he needed to buy his first pawn shop cornet.
The Karnofskys were his first Jewish encounter. From them, he developed a warm familial feeling for Jews and took to wearing a Star of David around his neck. His relationship with Joe Glaser was far more complicated and fraught.
As much as Armstrong trusted and loved Glaser, it appears Glaser did not wholly reciprocate. Armstrong noted that he was never once invited to his partner’s house.
Admittedly Armstrong had no desire to be involved in the day-to-day details required to keep him on the road doing what he loved: playing music and entertaining audiences. Glaser did it all, and became rich off the deal the two cut: a 50-50 split.
This is an actor’s play, and Craig Wallace, recently seen in “District Merchants” at the Folger Theater, inhabits the easygoing but tightly focused persona of Armstrong with ease, grace and a delicious raspy Southern drawl. And on a dime he becomes the irascible agent Glaser, with his short fuse but prescient ideas about what pop music audiences would buy — less arty high notes and intellectual compositions and more simple pop-oriented tunes like “Hello Dolly!” and “It’s a Wonderful World.”
It would be easy to look at “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” with its effective dressing room set by Andrew Cohen, period costumes including well-pressed suits and crisp dress shirts by costume designer Brandee Mathies, and gorgeous lighting including shadowy alleyways and white-hot spotlights by Alberto Segarra, as a salvo in the conversation about black-Jewish relations. Teachout includes compelling examples of Armstrong speaking out about race. One followed the 1957 Little Rock mobs when schools were integrated by a brave little girl. He slammed President Dwight Eisenhower and called Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus an “uneducated plow boy,” edited down from far saltier language by the reporter who captured Armstrong’s sentiments.
Additionally, Armstrong faced harsh criticism from some in the black community for kowtowing to white audiences (and his white manager). Teachout introduces the hip, young Miles Davis, decked out in dark sunglasses and standing in dim light, maybe the Village Vanguard nightclub, to critique Armstrong and his choices. Davis calls Armstrong an Uncle Tom for what he perceived as selling out to white audiences. For his part, Armstrong went where Glaser told him to and where the bookings and money took him.
“Satchmo at the Waldorf” hones in on a little-known aspect of the life of one of 20th century America’s most influential musical artists. While we don’t understand or condone either Armstrong’s or Glaser’s choices, Teachout prefers it that way, letting viewers make their own judgments about whether Glaser cheated and took advantage of Armstrong or was compelled to make the choices he did by forces outside his control.
It’s a fascinating chapter in American cultural history. Missing, though, even amid this well-acted production directed by Eleanor Holdridge, is the music. Sound designer Christopher Baine selects a few snippets of Armstrong’s to intersperse but, alas, more music would have made this play sing.