Satchmo at the Waldorf

The Shakespeare & Company/Long Wharf Theatre Production of SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF
by Terry Teachout
directed by Gordon Edelstein
starring John Douglas Thompson
November 16, 2012December 2, 2012



Satchmo and the Little Rock Nine

 “I don’t get involved in politics,” Louis Armstrong once said. “I just blow my horn.” One evening in 1957, however, he decided to speak up, and his remarks may have had large consequences.

On September 17, 1957, Armstrong was scheduled to play a concert in Grand Forks, North Dakota with his All Star Band. A young reporter, Larry Lubenow, had been assigned to get an interview with Armstrong for the local paper, the Grand Forks Herald. Unfortunately, Lubenow could not schedule an interview with Armstrong before the concert, so he decided to get crafty and posed as a bell captain at Armstrong’s hotel. After Lubenow revealed his subterfuge to Armstrong, the trumpeter agreed to an interview. Two weeks earlier, the Little Rock Nine, nine African-American teenagers,  had being barred from entering Little Rock’s Central High School. Lubenow boldy asked Armstrong’s opinion on the matter. President Eisenhower was “two faced,” Armstrong said, adding “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also had some choice words for Governor Faubus of Arkansas who had resisted orders for desegregation of schools.


Swing that Music

During the early days of Louis Armstrong’s career, he became known for pushing his horn-playing skills to the limit by playing multiple high notes in a row. He incorporated this routine into his performances of the song “Shine”, hitting about forty high Cs in a row and ending on a high F. He finally got a chance to record this talent in 1936 on the song “Swing that Music”. Armstrong collaborated with Horace Gerlach, a pianist and songwriter, on this particular recording as well as his autobiography of the same name. Gerlach is credited as an “editor” of the book’s final section which features several transcriptions of jazz solos. As exciting as Armstrong’s high notes were, the act eventually took a toll on Armstrong’s lips and Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, encouraged him to back off the high notes in order to save his lips and his career.

Jimmy Dorsey & His Orch., voc. & trumpet Louis Armstrong - Swing That Music, Decca 1936


A Reason to Give Thanks for the Mob?

The mafia helped change the face of American music by giving jazz artists a place to practice their craft at mob-run nightclubs and restaurants. Many of the brothels of Storyville in New Orleans where Louis Armstrong got his start in music were run by Sicillian mobsters. Henry Matranga, one of the most powerful mobsters at the time, owned the tavern where Armstrong played his first gig in 1917. Mafia connections helped keep these clubs and brothels open and protected from police raids in the early days.

When jazz musicians migrated from the south to cities like Chicago and New York, mafia-run clubs were there to welcome them. These clubs gave jazz musicians the exposure they needed to make jazz music a national phenomenon by giving them a stage to play on and good wages. This caused some trouble for jazz musicians as they became more popular, though.

Armstrong found himself in the middle of a feud between two managers, Tommy Rockwell and Johnny Collins, who fought over control of Armstrong’s career. Rockwell, Armstrong’s former manager decided to use force to get his prized client back, going so far as to send feared gangsters such as Dutch Schultz and Frankie Foster to visit Armstrong and bring him back to New York. The gangsters didn’t stop following Armstrong around until he decided to bring in Joe Glaser, who was notoriously connected to Al Capone, on as his manager. Despite Glaser’s dangerous past, the two remained partners until Glaser’s death in 1969.