THE FIRST ROUGHLY THREE MINUTES of Satchmo at the Waldorf are wordless but not soundless. Louis Armstrong (aka Satchmo) ambles into his backstage dressing room amid a violent coughing spree. The legendary trumpeter, now 69 and in his twilight days, collapses into the couch and reaches for the nearby oxygen tank. He breathes deep, ragged breaths as he stares off into the distance.
These quiet moments are peppered throughout playwright Terry Teachout's dense script, which was first performed in 2011 prior to an off-Broadway engagement. And although it would be factually inaccurate to call the play a musical, many moments are certainly lyrical. Across most of the one-man show, Armstrong, portrayed by Jerome Preston Bates, is running his motor mouth full of gravel, telling us his version of how the son of a New Orleans whore ended up here, rubbing elbows with nice white folk at the Waldorf Astoria. His narrative winds and twists through his life, occasionally losing himself in a memory so that he forgets about the audience, closes his eyes, and hums a tune. There are loud moments of shouted obscenities—truly inventive formulations of obscenities not fit for publication—but there are quiet moments, too.
"We ain't on TV," he says, justifying his incessant cussing. "We right here in my dressing room, hangin' out." That's a good way to encapsulate the informal, shootin’ the shit vibe of the play, in which Bates kicks off his loafers mid-sentence to reveal his tube-socked feet as he delivers his own authorized and uncensored version of his life story. Basking in the warm yellow light, he lists off who can shove any number of objects up their you-know-where as he ticks through his epic list of accomplishments and shrewd business decisions that made him, as one twinkling marquee once declared, “the world’s greatest trumpet player.”
But that rosy narrative is complicated by the interjected thoughts of Joe Glaser, Satchmo’s no-nonsense (and white) business manager. Bouncing between the two versions of the same biography—a switch indicated by a shift from the soft dressing room light and the harsh, blue-toned hues that denote Glaser’s mafia-steeped Chicago roots—you learn how Satchmo was skillfully manipulated and molded by Glaser to turn the maximum profit. A few scenes also feature Miles Davis, cast in magenta club lighting, who dismisses Armstrong as a sell-out hack, clowning around for white people. According to Davis, Satchmo’s perpetual smile, conservative trumpet playing, and rejection of the more modern, cerebral bebop reflected a capitulation to white tastes, one that betrayed any real jazz bonafides. The audience witnesses how these divergent stories, all delivered by the same actor and each with their own strands of truth, ultimately coalesce into a singular legacy that rarely aligns with Satchmo's self-conception.
As a work of pure—if embellished—biography, there’s probably not much you’ll learn about Louis Armstrong from this play, and that’s okay. There are other, more interesting things going on here, like a dissection of how America commodifies black culture, or a look at a musician struggling to hold together the edifice of his life as it nears its end. This performance at the Waldorf would be Satchmo’s final act before he died just four months later in 1971, adding a elegiac tint to Bates' superlative performance in which one man convincingly plays three. "I had all the luck," Armstrong says, with the usual glimmering smile. That statement is largely, if not wholly true, but it is what Satchmo needed to tell himself as the curtain fell on his difficult, colorful life.
Thru March 18. Tickets from $35. The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.