Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong died in 1971, but our understanding of his groundbreaking contributions to jazz and culture is relatively recent history. In this age of information overload, events from 45 years ago are quickly lost, so millions born after 1970 know little about him. The good news is that Satchmo at the Waldorf (starring John Douglas Thompson) is appearing again for a limited engagement, and he's just as fabulous as ever.
Terry Teachout's Satchmo is a biodrama, so fans of Armstrong's jazz trumpet and famous voice should not expect a Louis Armstrong concert. It's fiction, "freely based on fact," and it's the true story of a hardworking musician whose goal was to put a smile on his fans' faces.
The setting is Armstrong's dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1971. He has just finished a concert as the play starts.
Thompson enters and staggers across the stage to get to his oxygen tank. He's exhausted, winded and barely upright. He slowly catches his breath then dives into the Satchmo story.
Armstrong came from a New Orleans neighborhood known as the Battle Field; his family was dirt poor. Starting in the 1920s, he toured far and wide, bringing jazz to the masses, playing up to 300 dates a year. He played in venues that would not admit him as a customer. He ate in the kitchen with the staff and never complained about the indignities.
Satchmo is a rags-to-riches story, mixed with some harsh realities. Armstrong had access to white people, which was unusual for the times, but he was close to just one: his manager, Joe Glaser. Thompson morphs into Glaser as he tells the story, moving abruptly between the two characters.
Thompson's hard-edged Glaser contrasts sharply with Armstrong's congenial personality, so the transitions are stark. Thompson plays Armstrong with a stooped posture and a shuffling gait; Glaser is ramrod straight and animated. Sadly, the one white man Armstrong befriended betrays him in the end.
Thompson also plays a third character, jazz musician Miles Davis. Though younger, Davis was a successful jazz contemporary of Armstrong's, but with a more cynical attitude. Thompson skillfully displays Armstrong's anger over Davis' "Uncle Tom" insult.
Thompson's performance is brilliant; he's alone on the stage for 90 minutes, playing three characters and re-creating a giant in American music. He's an actor at the top of his craft who, like Armstrong himself, pours his heart and soul into a performance in order to leave a smile on your face. The opening night show was packed, and the standing ovation was immediate.
Wilburn Bonnell has recreated Kevin Adams' original lighting design, giving depth to Lee Savage's set design. Savage's three large dressing-room mirrors transform into windows, subtly lit from behind the glass, looking out on the city for the scenes in Glaser's office. Director Gordon Edelstein ties it all together, bringing Thompson to the fourth wall to remind us that the audience is typical for Armstrong: nearly all white.
Louis Armstrong is an American cultural giant who was ignored by much of the black community. That's a shame. His unselfish contributions to music, film and culture are what gave Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and many others a crossover path to success. Satchmo at the Waldorf is a loving, moving portrait of the man behind the music.