A Major-Key Artist: An Interview with Playwright Terry Teachout

Friday, January 8, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell
It is a Sunday evening in 1964. An eight-year-old boy plays in the backyard of his small-town Missouri home. His mother leans out the door and tells him to come in. When he walks inside, he sees that the television is on. His mother says, “I want you to watch this. I want you to see this man, because he won’t be around forever.” On the screen are Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, playing “Hello, Dolly!” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The young boy is entranced.
This is Terry Teachout’s first memory of the music of Louis Armstrong. Teachout later went on to become a jazz musician, the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and the playwright of Satchmo at the Waldorf. We caught up with Teachout to talk about the inspiration behind his first play, the complexity of Louis Armstrong, and the pure joy of Satchmo’s music.
What is it about Armstrong’s relationship with his manager Joe Glaser that is ripe for the stage?
Even in the first draft of the play, Satchmo at the Waldorf was already about the complex relationship between Armstrong and Glaser. Armstrong wanted to be able to go onstage every night and perform without having to worry about what to pay the members of the band or who the bass player should be or where they were going to play the next night. He simply wanted, as he liked to say, to blow his horn. Glaser made that possible. He told Armstrong where to play and chose the members of the band and gave Armstrong advice about how to present himself as a popular entertainer. And Armstrong trusted his judgment.
In the 1930s and the early ’40s, this kind of relationship wasn’t looked at askance. But that generation gave way to a more politically conscious generation of black musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the way that Armstrong talked about Glaser in public made them uncomfortable. Along with this generational shift, younger blacks, more generally, became ill at ease with Armstrong’s stage manner, which they saw as ingratiating to the point of obsequiousness.
Louis Armstrong at the Aquarium in New York.
Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1946. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Finally, the world of music itself was changing after World War II. The traditional jazz that Armstrong played gave way first to bebop and then to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll. As a result, Armstrong lost most of his black audience. He became a person who, for the most part, played for white people in white nightclubs and concert halls.
Armstrong was aware of this. It was something that genuinely troubled him; he felt that he had been a figure of real importance in seeking out opportunities for his people. He couldn’t understand why anybody would condescend to him because he liked to be entertaining and make people happy. It was Armstrong’s growing awareness of this conflict that I put at the center of the play.
Why did you make this a one-person show?
I first imagined that the play would be performed by one person, who would switch between the roles. I knew that having the play done by one actor who has to cross a racial line to play the part of Glaser was what would give the play its dynamism. In a sense, Armstrong and Glaser are two sides of the same coin. Glaser is Armstrong’s dark shadow. He did the dirty work that Armstrong didn’t want to do and didn’t even want to know about. My Glaser explicitly talks about all this at the end of the play; by aligning himself with mobsters, he had made it possible for Armstrong to go onstage and be the fundamentally radiant, optimistic figure that he was as a performer.
In Pops, the epigraph is a quote from artist Constantin Brancusi: “Don’t look for obscure formulas, nor for le mystère. It is pure joy I’m giving you.” What does that quote mean for you and for Armstrong’s life?
I have described Armstrong as a major-key artist. I don’t mean that he was naïve. He really understood how hard the world could be—remember the difficult life he had as a child in Storyville, New Orleans. But his orientation, even when playing the blues, was essentially an affirming one. He accepts the good and the bad of the world, and, through his art, transmutes it into something beautiful. And what he wants you to feel, what he felt playing it, is pure joy. 

*To read more of Teachout's interview, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 
 
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