Shortly before his death in 1971, jazz legend and early CelebStoner Louis Armstrong often recorded himself talking about his life on his own reel-to-reel tape machines for an autobiography that he never finished. No doubt these actual recording provided some of the inspiration behind Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new one-man play that opened last night at New York's Westside Theatre.
John Douglas Thompson shines as the conflicted, talented and joyous Armstrong. Playing Satchmo (Armstrong's nickname, which was shortened from "Satchelmouth," for the large size of his mouth) to perfection with the gravelly voice and big smile while acting old and stooped, Thompson shares Armstrong’s musings on marijuana, which he fondly enjoyed until shortly before his death. He points out that his wife Lucille was holding his stash when she was arrested in Hawaii and let go with a fine in the 1950s. Armstrong's 1931 pot bust in Los Angeles isn't mentioned, but it's included in a list of his life events in the program.
More important are the pioneering jazz trumpeter's feelings on race, poverty, growing up in New Orleans and becoming a ground-breaking musical superstar. Thompson doesn't play the trumpet, but excerpts from songs like "West End Blues" are featured in the soundtrack.
The play contains a few surprises when Thompson switches characters to portray Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager who rescues him from rival gangster club owners, only to sign away Satchmo’s interest in his management company later on. Thompson also portrays an angry Miles Davis, who accuses Armstrong of selling out his race.
This production reveals mostly true events and characters in the life of Armstrong, who was working on a realistic look at his years as one of the 20th Century's most famous artists. The book would have been the follow-up to a bestseller about his early life called Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. At one point early on in the recordings, Armstrong says his later life could be about nothing but “gage,” his nickname for cannabis, along with “good shuzzit.”
Satchmo at the Waldorf helps recast Louis Armstrong in a more complex light. It's a sizzling, no-holds-barred portrait of one of the greatest musicians in American history.