all photos by Wallis
I had the pleasure of meeting Louis Armstrong once, spending an evening with him on his 75th birthday on July 4th, 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. I was the publicist for the festival from its founding in 1954 by Boston pianist Geoge Wein until the riots of '61, when it was cancelled for several years. Louis performed that night and we filmed him for a spectacular sequence in a movie called "Jazz on a Summer Day" which I was making with director Bert Stern. Imagine, this icon of American jazz was actually a July 4th baby!
I was reminded of this when I received an invitation to attend the opening of a drama which is coming to my favorite new theatre, The Wallis, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in Beverly Hills. The show is entitled SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, and it is a production of the Long Wharf Theatre and Shakespeare & Company. It was written by Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, who wrote a wonderful biography of Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong called Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The play coming to The Wallis' Lovelace Studio Theatre will run from May 26th to June 7th, so I suggest that you go to their website or boxoffice and pick up a few seats now. Directed by Gordon Edelstein, it stars a wonderful actor named John Douglas Thompson, an Obie winner who was described by the New York Times as "one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation."
The press info tells me that it is a tour-de-force multiple-character solo performance. Its setting is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March 1971 and Louis Armstrong has just played one of the final performances of his extraordinary career. Unwinding backstage he recounts events that transformed him into the world-famous "Satchmo." The playwright noted that there were aspects of the musician's life which evoked many questions, especially his career-long dealings with his mob-connected manager, Joe Glaser, also played by Thompson.
Now it just so happens that I was also well-acquainted with Mr. Glaser, since he is the man whom I had to deal with for 13 years while I worked assiduously to get the life of Billie Holiday onto the screen, finally succeeding with Academy-nominated "Lady Sings the Blues" in 1971. Glaser not only managed Louis, he also managed Billie...and when I met her backstage at Newport and she gave me a draft copy of her semi-autobiography, she told me to go see Joe Glaser if I wanted to get the film rights. I went to meet him at his shabby office on 57th Street in midtown Manhattan and he said he would give me a year's option to her forthcoming book (written with William Dufty) for $5,000. I asked for 18 months, he agreed, and then I struggled to borrow the money for the option,...which I then kept renewing each year for more than a decade. (It was Diana Ross' manager, Berry Gordy, who said to me, "Who would want to see a movie about a black junkie singer?" when I first suggested she star in it. Berry's life story, Motown, opened at the Pantages this week.)
Armstrong's legacy is a very rich one. He changed the sound of jazz, creating the language of jazz that we all know and recognize today. He was one of the most influential, important jazz artists and for many white people in America he was very likely the first black person they loved. (Followed, of course, by Sidney Poitier, who starred in my movie, "For Love of Ivy," with singer Abbey Lincoln, the first studio movie to star two black actors.) Louis was someone that every American saw in movies, on television, and before that heard on radio....someone who came into their homes and that was such an important thing for a black man to have done. As the playwright said, "He was the joyous entertainer who sang 'Hello Dolly' and 'What a Wonderful World" and made millions of people feel warm inside. But make no mistake, Satchmo is also about the private Armstrong, who swore like a trooper and knew how to hold a grudge. The fact that he had two sides to his personality doesn't mean the public man was somehow less real than the private one. Like all geniuses, Armstrong was complicated and that complexity was part of what made his music so beautiful and profound."
Because I personally had to deal with Joe Glaser for over a decade on Billie Holiday I was particularly interested in how the play portrays Armstrong's manager of 40 years, the white, hard-talking Chicago pitchman who left Louis little when he died. In its review of a prior production, The New York Times said: "Glaser acknowledged Armstrong's gifts while blithely exploiting him but like Bing Crosby, who brought Armstrong to radio and movies, he never once invited him into his øwn home. Thompson offers dazzling arias, at one point toggling between Armstrong and Glaser in a pyrotechnical display."
The New Yorker said: "Teachout, Thompson and the director, Gordon Edelstein, together create an extraordinary rich and complex characterization. The show centers on the trumpeter's relationship with his mob-connected Jewish manager of more than 35 years.....and Thompson forcefully inhabits both men - and alos throws a chilling Miles Davis - delivering an altogether riveting performance."
After the Wallis, the show travels to Chicago's Court Theatre, Palm Beach Dramaworks, and San Francisco's Americn Conservatory Theatre. Tickets for $30 to $50 are available at www.the wallis.org., by calling 310-746-4000 or in person at the Wallis Ticket Services located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills 90210. SEE YOU THERE!
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