Julie Xu

Familiar Sounds of Satchmo

A number of South Side organizations have partnered for a festival honoring the life and legacy of Louis Armstrong

March, 1971, Louis Armstrong—the “World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”—is playing a two-week engagement at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in what would be one of his final performances before passing away just a few months later. Satchmo at the Waldorf, at Court Theatre, fictionally portrays Armstrong at the end of one of these evenings at the Waldorf, in his dressing room, reflecting upon his life and the legacy he is to leave behind.

The one-man show, making its Midwest premiere after a run Off-Broadway in New York, is directed by the Artistic Director of Court, Charles Newell, and was written by Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong).

It is just one part in an ongoing multi-organization festival celebrating Louis Armstrong’s legacy, forty-five years after his death. Having started in early January and extending into late February, the festival includes an archival exhibition at the Beverly Arts Center, jazz performances at the Logan Center for the Arts, the Promontory, and the South Shore Cultural Center, and, finally, various screenings and talks given by organizers of the South Side-based festival and Armstrong experts.

The Satchmo Festival, named after one of Armstrong’s commonly used nicknames, was first conceived by Stephen J. Albert, Court’s executive director, in conversation with the executive director of the Beverly Arts Center, Heather Ireland Robinson. “I wanted to see if I could get South Side organizations working together and generate the kind of excitement that his music generated,” Albert said. After receiving word that Satchmo at the Waldorf would be coming to Court, Albert began doing his research on Armstrong, even going to New York to visit the Armstrong Archives and the Armstrong House Museum, where he once resided. Shortly afterward, varying organizations began signing on to collaborate on the festival. “What we do with a theatre of our size is, that whenever we have the opportunity to make a lot of noise, we take it. And this festival has allowed us to make a lot of noise about the production and about his legacy,” Albert says.

Given the great success in New York, certain aspects of the show were to remain unchanged for the Chicago production, Newell said, such as the script and the fact that one actor would play three characters (Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis). However, Newell wanted to create an even more stripped down version than the one seen in New York—the minimal set design only features a few objects on stage and a large mirror behind Armstrong. “The whole point was that it was less literal, it was only reminiscent [of a typical dressing room], and we wanted to get to the emotional core of the piece,” Newell said. “With this actor, I think we really have.”

The three characters are played by Barry Shabaka Henley, who seamlessly (with the help of subtle changes in stage lighting) transitions between them as he recounts the trials and tribulations of Armstrong’s life, illuminating the complex relationships Armstrong had with Glaser and the white society that accepted him and propelled his career. The central themes of the play—the passage of time, struggles with immense success, racially-driven obstacles, his declining health—are not particularly humorous topics, but when Henley delivers Armstrong’s story to the audience, there is no option but to laugh, even if just for the moment before contemplation settles in. His performance is a testament to the sense of humor the jovial, charismatic Armstrong had about his life. Yet, just as Henley wins over the audience, as Armstrong did for decades, he reveals the sadness and frustration Armstrong possessed towards those very audiences who considered their admiration of him an ‘exception’ because of his race.

“Everyone knows him as the joyous, positive, upbeat, Louis Armstrong,” Newell says. “The story of his life is much more complicated than that and that’s the Louis Armstrong we wanted to portray—the one you don’t know.”

Armstrong, born to a poor family in New Orleans, first came to Chicago in 1922 to play trumpet in Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, where his southern style won massive popularity. After a brief engagement in New York, he returned to Chicago in 1925 and began recording records under his name, accompanied with his band Hot Five. It was also around this time that Armstrong began playing in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra at the Sunset Café in Bronzeville, which Glaser owned. In 1928, Glaser became Armstrong’s manager and launched him into national stardom, having him tour extensively throughout the United States for the next three decades, and even earning him a couple of number one hits by the end of the sixties.

His monumental career came to an end in 1971, when he passed away in New York from a heart attack. At the time of his death, he was hailed as one of the most influential artists in jazz music—perhaps one of the smallest signifiers of his recognized contributions being that the list of honorary pallbearers at his funeral included Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra.

Yet something, perhaps the most important driving force in his life, was absent from the play—his music. It only appeared every now and then, and whenever it did, it was brief, playing in the background in an echoing, haunting manner. It was an omission made out of respect, and one intended to contribute to a different focus on Armstrong that is seldom explored. “The play doesn’t have his music, and you could never get an actor to play his music, and because of that, I thought it was missing that character,” Albert says.

That particular character found its place in other forms: the exhibit at the Beverly Arts Center, which displays archival items on loan from the Louis Armstrong Archives, even one of his trumpets, is meant to directly complement the show. Trollies can take visitors to the exhibit following a matinee performance of the play, to give them historical context after being introduced to Armstrong’s narrative story, Albert says. Festivalgoers find the sounds of Armstrong and those influenced by him through various live performances by saxophonist Darius Hampton and trumpeters Marquis Hill and Orbert Davis, among many others.

Armstrong’s legacy becomes difficult to fully understand considering all the moving parts: his music, his artistry, his role in society, and his own personal identity, incessantly contradicting, clashing with, and complementing one another. Yet Satchmo at the Waldorf and the accompanying festival efficiently hone in on Armstrong by means of wide-sweeping avenues fictional, historical, and musical.

The return of Satchmo’s music and legacy to Chicago is also particularly striking considering the road he paved for numerous black entertainers and musicians, here and elsewhere. Simply put, by bringing this festival to the South Side, Court and its partnering organizations have used their combined immense stake in the Chicago cultural world to bring back a celebration of jazz and those who make it. “One of the things about being on the South Side of Chicago, is that jazz music is a big part of its own legacy,” Albert says. “There’s so much richness, but there’s a hunger of so many people to have that legacy back.”

Court, which traditionally dedicates itself to a number of classic productions from the Western canon every year, is marking a new, conscious direction with the Satchmo Festival. It is both refreshing and immensely exciting to see a newfound investment in the history and culture of the predominantly black communities that surround the theater, an ongoing mission since Court established the Center for Classic Theatre in 2010. This step is one that is certainly dependable, and will contribute to the “cultural ecology” of the South Side, according to Albert—that is, as long as they continue to program more collaborative events and productions that fall under this new direction.

Towards the end of the play, Henley proclaims: “Playing that pretty music every night, it takes a lot out of an old man,” and for a moment there is a sense that Armstrong, who evidently just wanted to play music, simply happened to find himself in a world that adored him for it. Whether or not people listened, and bought, and waited for the sounds of his trumpet, his life is a reminder that the true legacy an artist can have is one in which they would have played regardless of how much people paid attention. Despite his difficulties in dealing with the pervasiveness of America’s white supremacy, the extent of which he saw while touring the country, when Armstrong was on stage, he was nothing but the world’s greatest trumpet player.

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