A Wonderful Life
Terry Teachout reaches down deep into the soul of Louis Armstrong.

John Douglas Thompson plays Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf.


Thomas S. Hibbs

Some of Glaser’s complaints are mild and humorous, such as the story he tells about audience requests to hear “Hello, Dolly!” Incredulous, Glaser asks, “Can you believe Louis couldn’t remember the song?” Nor, it turned out, could any of his band members. Glaser had to mail them a recording so they could relearn it.

About that famous song, Armstrong is blunt in his assessment: “It ain’t much of a song; in fact, it’s a piece of s**t.” Yet, as he relates the tale of its surprising climb up the record charts, he beams with pride as he recalls how it displaced at number one a song by “John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”

Glaser’s biggest lament has nothing to do with Armstrong and everything to do with his own indentured servitude to Al Capone and the mob. If Armstrong was in some sense a tool of Glaser’s success, Glaser himself was but a pawn in the machinations of the mob. Teachout gives Glaser the sage observation here that most of us, powerful or not, genius or not, spend most of our time in servitude to some individual or organization, more or less unseemly.

What is remarkable about Teachout’s behind-the-scenes look at Armstrong is that it does not ultimately fall prey to bitterness or despair. Indeed, Satchmo is engaged in a quest that is at once quite ordinary and also the stuff of philosophy: to glimpse the arc of one’s life, to see it as a whole, to articulate its failures and successes, its angry disappointments and its joys, and ultimately to affirm its goodness.

Now, Armstrong was known for his connection with audiences, especially with white audiences. Teachout’s script plays cleverly and insightfully on that intimacy. At one point, Satchmo complains that his people from Harlem do not bother to come downtown to see him perform at the Waldorf-Astoria. But, he goes on to observe, the white folks never stop coming. Then Thompson pauses, fixes his eyes on the audience — so far as I could tell, an all-white audience — and gestures knowingly toward us, as if to say, “See what I mean? You white folks are still coming to see me.”

But Teachout is doing much more than commenting on Armstrong’s racial crossover success. He is making a humble but often forgotten point about art and artists: Their task is to captivate and entertain. The play does that with great success and thus extends Satchmo’s relationship with his audience beyond his death, and into the present.

The brilliance of Teachout’s play is that it does so without withholding from the audience, as Satchmo the performer deliberately did, the suffering and doubt of the performer’s life. Teachout reaches down deep into the soul of Satchmo to present, in the midst of pain and sacrifice, a buoyantly joyous life.

Surprising in one way but perhaps not in another, the closing strikes a powerfully religious chord. Armstrong ends by recalling the message of his dying mother, that he would make people happy because he had a good heart. He adds that he has never failed to say his prayers every night or to offer a blessing before meals. He then quotes the song for which he is perhaps best known, “What a Wonderful World,” particularly its refrain about the “bright blessed days” and the “dark sacred nights.”

Jazz, known for its link to the blues and for its articulation of the miseries of this life, is, according to Satchmo, “happy down deep,” even when “it’s about the bad stuff.” As Armstrong says about his own music, “If you think about the good times, the notes gonna come out all right.” That is an apt description of Thompson’s memorable enactment of Teachout’s script, testimony to a life that, even with all the bad stuff, comes out all right.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published recently by Baylor University Press.