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Probing the conflicted life of Louis Armstrong in ‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’

“Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Terry Teachout’s fascinating one-man (three-character) fantasia about Louis Armstrong — now in its Midwest premiere at Court Theatre, where Barry Shabaka Henley is delivering a tour de force performance — brought to mind a story told to me many years ago by a jazz musician and composer.

The musician (who happened to be white, and Jewish — both crucial factors in “Satchmo”), recalled being at a recording session with Armstrong during which he was asked to don a powdery Mozart wig for promotional photos. Armstrong did as asked, but this fellow musician, standing on the sidelines, grew furious and embarrassed for him — incensed that the man universally credited as the founding father of jazz was being subjected to what might be perceived as racist humiliation.

Teachout’s play suggests that Armstrong might have had more complicated and conflicted feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, he was a pragmatist who understood what it took to sustain his fame, and he also had great respect for classical music (with one of the most intriguing sequences in the play suggesting how he echoed his love of opera singers’ vocal flourishes on his horn). On the other hand, as a fatherless child of poverty who grew up in New Orleans’ Storyville neighborhood, and endured the most virulent examples of Jim Crow racism throughout most of his long career, he needed no reminders of the many indignities foisted upon him, and more or less dismissed them.

The point is, Armstrong dwelt on the possible. And from early on he delegated the work of keeping his career alive to others — most notably to Joe Glaser, his thuggish (but not uni-dimensional) agent, the other major character in this drama. A Judas-like figure of betrayal, he also made it possible for Armstrong to simply make music. As Satchmo notes: “Me and my horn are one… what is in my head comes out of the horn.” Along the way, both knowingly and not, he paid the price for that approach to life.

‘SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF’

Highly recommended

When: Through Feb. 14

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45 – $65

Info: (773)753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org

Run time: 100 minutes, with no intermission

When we first see Satchmo he is not breathing into his horn, but into the mask of an oxygen machine. It is 1971, and he is in his dressing room at the posh Empire Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the site of his last public performance, just four months before his death. He has a tape recorder set up in the room, and begins to dictate what he envisions as his new book. In the process, he attempts to come to terms with Glaser, the man who rescued him from the Chicago mob, and served as his fully trusted (if not ultimately trustworthy) manager from 1935 until his death four years before Armstrong’s.

Barry Shabaka Henley plays Louis Armstrong in the Court Theatre production of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Barry Shabaka Henley plays Louis Armstrong in the Court Theatre production of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It is this complicated relationship — which was based on a handshake, and undermined by the manipulations of Sidney Korshak, the notorious lawyer who served as “fixer” for the most powerful Chicago and Los Angeles organized crime syndicates — that is at the core of the play. And its final outcome profoundly shakes Armstrong’s world view late in his life.

But the questions remain: Was Armstrong a willing Uncle Tom, increasingly sidelining his horn playing, and agreeing to project the glossed-over image of a happy musical genius while singing such things as his (Beatles-beating) hit of “Hello, Dolly!” ? Did he aim to please a white audience because he understood it was the source of his fame and fortune?

That was certainly the conclusion of Miles Davis, the ultra-cool “next generation” jazz man with radically different racial attitudes (who Shabaka deftly captures with a vocal shift and a pair of shades).

Or was he a workaholic and survivor who adapted to change in his own way — all the while keeping his less salable habits (the lifelong use of marijuana, much dabbling with women on the road, despite his great affection for his fourth wife, Lucille) under wraps, and never losing sight of his musical prowess? Did he, at Glaser’s urging, become more showman than musician? And really, who has the right to judge him?

Under Charles Newell’s understated direction, Henley (an actor with formidable stage credits who just happens to be best known for his work in film and television), gives a commanding performance. A large, solidly built man, he is, on the surface, less playful and impish than the Armstrong audiences recall. But he brings a gravity, a force of character, and an inherent dignity to the man, and his morphing from Satchmo to Glaser and Davis is wholly seamless. The sense of a man in the true twilight of his years is ideally enhanced by John Culbert’s mirrored set and Keith Parham’s haunting lighting.

“Satchmo at the Waldorf” is Teachout ‘s first play, and it, too, is seamless, and full of surprises. The drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, and the author of books about both Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others, Teachout clearly knows the turf. And he and his superb collaborators have shaped it for greatest dramatic effect.

Note: “Satchmo at the Waldorf” is just one facet of the Louis Armstrong Festival, during which many events and performances devised by several South Side cultural institutions will create “a snapshot of Louis Armstrong’s impact” throughout January and February.

Barry Shabaka Henley as Louis Armstrong in the Court Theatre production of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Barry Shabaka Henley as Louis Armstrong in the Court Theatre production of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)