When we encounter the legendary Louis Armstrong in "Satchmo," he is not blowing on his horn. Instead, the jazz great is desperately sucking oxygen from a tank stashed in his dressing room at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he has played what will turn out to be his last concert.
Terry Teachout's propulsive one-man show invites us to eavesdrop on the inner thoughts of the groundbreaking musician, in his 70s, as he approaches the end of a long and colorful life. Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, has crafted a tight and tart biography that contrasts the public image of the star with his salty talking, pot-smoking, badass private self.
We get a 90-minute audience with the raspy voiced master as he recounts his heady journey from a New Orleans boys home to the cover of Time magazine. Steeped in reminiscences as aching and bittersweet as a jazz riff, "Satchmo" thoroughly seduces us in its regional premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
Teachout shades the piece with the shadows of Satchmo's fame, such as the racism he endured. He often was the only black person allowed in any concert he gave, standing in the limelight staring out at a sea of white faces, "like a carton of eggs." Looking back on his life from a suite at the Waldorf, Satchmo (the acclaimed classical actor John Douglas Thompson) never forgot his hard life on the road, having to eat and sleep on the bus because no Southern hotel would have him and his band. Even that was better than being a little boy growing up in bordellos, picking food out of the trash to help his mama scrape by.
Thompson anchors the play with a perfectly calibrated performance, bopping from Satchmo to his manager and his naysayers. The actor moves between characters with startling grace and power.
The trumpeter also was plagued by accusations of being an Uncle Tom, content to play the fool onstage to cater to the tastes of whites. Miles Davis often took him to task on that score, although Satchmo counters that only one of them had the chutzpah to call President Dwight Eisenhower out on the carpet for segregation.
The racial chasm is a running motif here. Satchmo's manager of 40 years, Joe Glaser, not only cheated him in business, but he also never bothered to invite Armstrong to his home. Not once. Neither did his frequent collaborator Bing Crosby.
The younger generation of musicians also disrespected him. Apparently bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie once dismissed the icon, saying, "All Louis did was play strictly from the soul. ... Us young cats, we study."
The insults stung Satchmo, who lived for his horn, cherishing it even more than Lucy, his favorite wife. But the detractors never broke his spirit.
In the end, the lingering doubts and resentments were not resonant enough to drown out Armstrong's love for the music, the melody that led him from the wrong side of the tracks in the Big Easy to the pantheon of American cultural history. He could always make the notes dance, and in return they gave him the power to endure.
'SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF'
By Terry Teachout, performed by John Douglas Thompson, presented by American Conservatory Theater
When: Jan. 13-Feb. 7
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$105, 415-749-2228. www.act-sf.org