Terry Teachout had written in a lot of different formats – arts criticism in the Wall Street Journal, biographies, even opera libretti – but it had simply never occurred to him to write a play.
Teachout joked, paraphrasing critic Kenneth Tynan, that a critic is someone who knows where to go, but doesn’t know how to drive the car. However, when an acquaintance in the entertainment industry approached Teachout and expressed interested in his biography of Louis Armstrong, “Pops”, Teachout thought there might be something there. “It didn’t seem like it was coming out of a parallel universe, but it did take me by surprise,” Teachout said. “I thought this could be interesting.”
In a four day burst, Teachout, a jazz musician himself, wrote a first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf, which received a workshop at Rollins College in Florida with a fine Orlando actor named Dennis Neal. However, he believes it was his close work with Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and actor John Douglas Thompson that caused play to take on shape and life.
Teachout takes a specific incident in Armstrong’s life, his complex relationship with his white, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser, and teases it out into a full evening. “This play is an opportunity to open the door to Louis Armstrong’s house and learn something about him,” Teachout said.
The play begins with Armstrong struggling after a 1971 performance at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, late in his life. Armstrong, speaking into his ubiquitous tape recorder, starts to talk about Glaser, a quasi-paternal figure. “The way Armstrong looked at that relationship at the end of his life was the heart of the play,” Teachout said.
What emerges from Teachout’s work is a complex portrait of a man – funny, profane, thoughtful, and alive, extremely alive. “The side you see from The Ed Sullivan Show is the truth, it’s just not all of him,” Teachout said.
Louis Armstrong, to his dying day, was a man who lived for the thrill of the audience. What comes out of a man’s horn, Teachout’s Armstrong says that’s what he is. “This is a very serious attempt to show the man as he really was,” Teachout said.