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Theatre Review: 'Satchmo At The Waldorf' - A Revealing Portrait Of An American Musical Icon

“Satchmo at The Waldorf” is a one-man show at Sacramento’s  B Street Theatre about the legendary Louis Armstrong in the twilight of his career. The script by Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout packs a punch thanks to a powerful performance by the actor who plays the American jazz icon.

This show depicts Louis Armstrong at age 70, four months before his death. As portrayed by resourceful actor Jahi Kearse, Armstrong is old and ailing, and aware that he doesn’t have a lot of time left, saying

"Doc, he told me not to play this gig. He said ‘Satchmo, you a sick man. Your heart done gone bad, kidneys shuttin’ down. You might just drop dead on the bandstand in front of God and everybody.”

So he’s conserving his energy by playing a gig at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria, and getting meals delivered by room service. It’s a far cry from his hard life as a touring jazzman in the segregated 1920s.

"I done played in 99 million hotels I couldn’t sleep at, and that was just up North. Down South, there wasn’t no hotel for colored. No, sir. You better find yourself a boarding house, sleep on the bus, piss in the bushes. Nowhere to eat, neither.”

He marvels that in 1971, he’s the guest of honor at New York’s classiest hotel, and playing nightly in the ballroom. It’s a sweet deal.

Armstrong credits the transformation to his longtime manager, Joe Glazer – a Jewish agent from New Jersey, with gangland connections. Here Kearse portrays Glazer telling Armstrong to switch from old school jazz to American pop.

"(as Glazer) That voice of yours… that’s where the money is. You do what I say. Play your cards right. You won’t even have to play the trumpet no more. You can just stand up there and sing. You’re an entertainer, like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker. So start playing for the public. Wave that handkerchief around and smile like you don’t got a care in the world. You do that, you gonna make ten times as much money.”

And it works. The film “Hello, Dolly” has turned Armstrong into a movie star, and the title song has won him a Grammy Award. But success is bittersweet. He’s drawing capacity crowds, and making lots of money, but black audiences have stopped coming to hear him.

"You see out there tonight? All white as Ivory Soap. Looked like a carton of eggs just sittin’ out there. But that’s the idea now. Colored folk done give up on me. They cut me loose. Let me go.”

Actor Jahi Kearse is marvelous as he goes back and forth between playing Armstrong and playing Armstrong’s manager. And the way Kearse shifts almost instantaneously between these characters is pretty amazing.

Let’s be clear that “Satchmo at The Waldorf” is a play, not a musical. Jahi Kearse picks up a trumpet, but he doesn’t play it. Instead Armstrong offers up R-rated monologues about his frustrations in the privacy of his dressing room, while the tough-minded white manager talks bluntly about business.

Kearse is intense throughout the 90-minute play, illuminating the life of an American icon when he’s feeling both the flush of financial success late in life, and the disappointment that his achievements weren’t really appreciated by young jazz musicians of the time.  All in all, “Satchmo at the Waldorf” brings together a thoughtful, informative script and an outstanding, feisty performance.

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" continues at Sacramento's B Street Theatre through September 17th.


More links you might find interesting:

NPR piece by playwright Terry Teachout about his biography of Louis Armstrong

NPR blog about Louis Armstrong’s culinary habits

NPR story about Louis Armstrong resources available online through Louis Armstrong House Museum

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