The life of Louis Armstrong offers truth about artistic inspiration in the one-man play Satchmo at the Waldorf.
Armstrong may be the most influential musician of the 20th century. After you witness Armstrong (adept performance by Jerome Preston Bates) describing his journey to stardom, a new picture of a complicated situation emerges. It’s hard to put the bite back into the apple.
Armstrong finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Although the play is set in the early ’70s, the subject encompasses decades of memories. While as a young man playing in Chicago for clubs run by Al Capone, Armstrong is strong-armed into moving to New York to work in similar clubs run by Dutch Schultz at gunpoint.
Armstrong makes a phone call to the man who becomes his manager and who makes Armstrong a star. In Armstrong’s lifetime, being a star means that he was booked at top venues in the South only to have to come in the back door at his respective hotel.
As Armstrong relates in one scene, he ate the best steak in a random hotel kitchen on a wooden cutting board because the chefs were Black and he walked in though their delivery door and said “I’m Satchmo, can you get me something to eat?”
A single set consists of a hotel green room, complete with sofa, chairs and the back wall lined with mirrors and lights. At first, Bates walks in from one side with the light of the hallway being the only illumination of the set.
Different light temperatures will determine breaks in the play.
Sometimes the back wall mirrors reflect the audience in the front rows. This perspective comes from a seat that was higher up and able to view the stage from a hawk’s view. It occurs at once that the people whom I see being reflected in the mirrors are themselves seeing my row in the background of their mirror due to their perspective.
And then all at once the mirrors become two-way mirrors and we see Manhattan buildings in the background. As poignant an entrance as Bates makes during his entrance, his exit at the end provokes an emotional sense of closure after you’ve confronted the demons that pegged his career.
The main lights come down; Armstrong exits into the hallway light and then the stage goes black.
Bates plays three roles, and each persona is marked by abrupt lighting cues and body language shifts along with vocal nuances. The night I saw the show the progressions were razor sharp.
In addition to Armstrong, we meet his manager Joe Glaser, a fast talking entrepreneur who has his own skeletons in the closet. Glaser obviously has the connections to handle business contracts with the expertise of a mob consigliere, while at the same time being a plainspoken schemer. At times Bates mimics the kind of White Guy voice that Richard Pryor used in his comic routines, and then there’s also a machine gun cadence that harkens to fast talkers like James Cagney in Babyface mode.
The third character — Miles Davis — is seamlessly achieved by donning sunglasses with a slower light fade to blue. In real life, Armstrong died shortly after, on July 6, 1971.
Davis represents an alternative to the talent and charisma quotient that Armstrong defined. Davis had certainly established his street cred years before the events in the play, yet he’s a person on the verge of stepping into a bigger spotlight than he can imagine.
If there’s a thought that runs throughout this production, it relates to making a deal with the Devil. Glaser wasn’t the Devil per se, but he held a vice sway over Armstrong’s career.
Armstrong was the musical artist who dethroned The Beatles in 1964 when his ragtime version of “Hello Dolly,” went to Number One. Perhaps, not oddly, we only hear one or two actual music cues that summon select bars of “Hello Dolly” or “What a Wonderful World.”
Not related to the play, but “What a Wonderful World” was released in 1967 and went to Number One on the UK charts but failed to register at all due to non-promotion in America. In fact, domestic audiences only embraced the song after it was used in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.