America’s Critic Terry Teachout Was 65
Wrote for Wall Street Journal
By: Charles Giuliano - Jan 15, 2022
The author of several biographies, plays and opera librettos, Terry Teachout had an expansive interest in the arts. Few of his generation were more prolific. In an age of decline in arts journalism he was the only major critic who regularly covered regional theatre.
We saw him several times each season in the Berkshires. What follows is an extensive interview with Teachout in 2012.
At the end of the summer Wall Street Journal theatre critic, Terry Teachout, spent three weeks in Lenox, Mass. while his new show Satchmo at the Waldorf, starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Gordon Edelstein, was in rehearsal. The play derived from his book “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.”
The play has opened and the production at Shakespeare & Company is now "frozen." Before returning to New York to resume his duties for the Journal he attended several shows and took notes for the production which Edelstein will also direct for Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
We spoke for a couple of hours .
Terry Teachout The shows (Satchmo at the Waldorf) are selling out. One of the people who read the Globe review was Governor Deval Patrick who came to see the show last night with his wife. We met him back stage and then they went home.
Charles Giuliano I thought there was an embargo against reviews from the Times and Globe. (The official opening will occur when the play moves to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.)
TT Only the national papers. The Globe is regional relative to this place (Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.) She (Sandy MacDonald) seemed to like everything and expressed herself forcefully. It’s selling tickets. A lot of tickets.
My day job, as you know, has not stopped just because I’m here. I wrote a piece this morning. One yesterday morning. One the day before that. In order to keep on filing my drama column every week I went to a number of theatre festivals to see long running shows so I could stockpile them. This week I’m writing about Canada’s Shaw Festival’s Terence Rattigan's play French Without Tears. It’s a farce that’s never done in North America. I saw two other shows at the festival which I will be writing about next week. I’m going to Spring Green, Wisconsin next weekend to attend American Players Theatre one of my favorite classical companies. After that, life becomes normal again for a few weeks. My normal.
CG How do you find the time to be Terry Teachout?
TT Who he? When you’re in the middle of something like this all you can do is keep up. As my brother says “You just put one foot in front of another.”
CG Who is he?
TT He’s a diesel mechanic in South Eastern Missouri. We neither look alike or sound alike and have no common interests other than westerns. We’re very close. In fact he, his wife and daughter are coming out to see the show on Saturday night. So we’re very pleased about that.
My first responsibilities are to the day job, and the show right now. To the extent that it leaves room for anything else, I do it. I make sure I get eight hours of sleep a night.
CG We heard you speak on criticism during the American Theatre Critics Association meeting in Chicago. Since then I have been tossing around the notion of America’s Critic with colleagues. The New York Times, for example, is not sending critics on the road. You appear to be the only one.
TT I am the only one. There is no other. There is nobody else writing for a national publication who is covering theatre throughout America.
CG How about Time and Newsweek?
TT They gave it up long ago.
CG Can you address that?
TT What would you like me to talk about? How it happened? Why I do it?
CG What does it mean? Where do we stand? I wrote for the daily press a number of years ago (Boston Herald Traveler). I have followed the melt down since then to where we are today. It always seems that when there are newsroom and budget cuts the arts are always the first to go.
TT That’s correct. This is not, however, true at the Wall Street Journal.
CG Can you talk about the state of the arts today and how you see it?
TT Magazine journalism, for the past several years, have gradually been withdrawing their attention from the fine arts. There’s just no question about that. It’s a nation wide trend. It’s happening as much in major cities as in smaller ones. It’s very disturbing and has to do with the fact that the newspaper industry is in a period of transition as it moves away from paper publishing to on line publishing. It tries to find new revenue streams and tries to develop a concept of publishing that’s indigenous to the web. During this period the arts are going to be a lower priority. There’s nothing to be done about that.
I’m fortunate because I work for a newspaper that is a national paper and does have the money to cover the arts in a serious way. And wants me to do that. It wasn’t my idea, originally, to be America’s Drama Critic. The Journal said, look, we’re a national paper. Why don’t you go out there and see what is to be seen. At that stage I knew nothing about regional theatre. Now I know a lot about it. I know where to find it and what’s good. But I shouldn’t (emphasis) be the only one doing this. That’s ridiculous.
CG How does it feel to be the Last of the Mohicans?
TT I don’t like it at all. I like the job. I love what I’m doing. But there should be a half a dozen or more people doing what I’m doing. The news magazines are dinosaurs. They are doomed to extinction. Newsweek in its present form is not going to last much longer. It just isn’t. It will become an entirely on line publication. With a smaller budget and will reconfigure. I suppose it will become something more like Slate. But it’s not ever going to be what it was. Both Time and Newsweek started pulling back on the arts several years ago. I know this from the inside at Time because I used to cover classical music and dance for them and other things. Mostly those two subjects. They don’t see these subjects as any kind of priority now.
The New York Times should be covering more regional arts of all kinds. Why they don’t do that is not mine to say. I don’t work for them.
CG In Chicago you said that you write a hundred reviews a year and fifty are outside New York. A colleague and I tried to run the math. You have to fly, stay in hotels, and eat. There are per diem expenses. We speculated that it costs the Journal between $250,000 and $500,000 a year to keep you on the road.
TT I doubt if it’s that high. I really do. It’s a substantial investment on the part of the Journal but I doubt that it’s that high. I would be surprised. I don’t travel first class. I don’t fly first class. I don’t stay in Holiday Inns unless that’s where you have to stay. I don’t throw money around. I take this job seriously and one of the things I take seriously is that the Journal is willing to make the commitment. So I’m not frivolous with expense reports at all. But yes, their commitment is entirely serious.
CG In Chicago you talked about being someplace in the dead of winter.
TT Right and looking out the window and not remembering where I was. (Laughs) It only happened once but I remember that.
CG You travel year round and I’m sure that’s not fun.
TT Flying’s not fun. The rest of it is fun. You want to be home. My wife often travels with me which makes it easier. Flying anywhere is no fun. That’s the worst part of this. It’s inescapable unless I’m working the New England theatre circuit in which case I do it by car.
CG Do you live in Manhattan?
TT We live in Manhattan with a little place in Storrs, Connecticut. Out in the woods. I’m in whichever of those two places makes more sense in terms of what I have to be doing at the moment.
CG Let’s talk about your book Pops. Which I read last winter. I’m a slow reader so it was more like a meditation although I loved ever minute of it. From my days as a music critic I have a vast LP collection so I had just about all of the material you wrote about. As I discussed the book and recordings with friends I described the process as kind of seminar on Armstrong, New Orleans and early jazz. It was an opportunity to go back and rethink and listen. I burned albums to the hard drive and made CDs which I sent to John (Douglas Thompson) and some jazz fans. So I had a dialogue with the material.
TT It’s nice to come back to Louis isn’t it?
CG More than a book for me it was a journey. It’s rare to find someone who knows the music and can also write. One usually gets one or the other.
TT Most jazz biographies nowadays are written by musicologists. You don’t necessarily learn how to write in the course of learning how to be a musicologist. That’s not a knock on them. I couldn’t do my work without their work. I’m a serious scholar but standing on the shoulders of countless other people.
CG But you can tell a story.
TT It’s my job. When I was thinking about what kind of book do I want to write and who would my models be. For the most part I wasn’t thinking about jazz biographies. I was thinking about W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson.
(“W. Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson has been hailed as a supreme example of the biographer's art and the first great modern life of Johnson. Bate's work is literary biography at its finest, delving into the character that formed Johnson's awesome intellect and fueled his prodigious output. When first published, this magisterial biography won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.” Amazon.)
Or the David Kerins’ two volume Berlioz biography. Great biographies in other art forms were mostly what I was looking to. I was very interested in Dick Sudhalter’s biography of Bix Beiderbecke which is one of the few jazz biographies written by somebody who has that preliminary writing experience and who was also a working musician.
Without any intended insult to musicologists I have this interesting mix of background experiences. I never planned to write a jazz biography. I just got this sudden idea to write about Armstrong.
CG Given that there is a lot of material on Armstrong what was the motivation?
TT It was the tapes. The tapes are generally accessible. But at the point where they were made available no biographer had used them. When I realized that I knew that it was time that somebody did. That was really the trigger for this book. Because I had some sense of what the tapes would mean. Everybody knew that Armstrong had recorded big chunks of his private life. During the last quarter century of his life. I assumed they would be as revealing as they turned out to be. So that’s why this book got written. That, and love for Armstrong which is a different matter.
CG The other day John (Douglas Thompson) was saying that there are some 2,000 hours transcribed.
TT There are 650 reels. Every few of them actually have been transcribed. They have been indexed. So you can find things on them and several of the key tapes have been transcribed. Of the 650 reels a significant part of that is Armstrong’s record collection. Which he taped off so he could listen to the music on the road. He also taped most of his radio and TV interviews in the last fifteen or twenty years of his life. So that’s a lot of the material. But, even including all of that, there is a huge amount of these very informal conversations. It would simply be a matter of Armstrong setting up the tape recorder in a corner of the dining room, in his dressing room, in his hotel room. Just turning it on and letting it run. While he and other people were talking or him talking into it.
CG Who did he talk with?
TT Whoever was there. The funniest one is in the dressing room when Stepin Fetchit has come back stage. (Stepin Fetchit, May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985, was the stage name of American comedian and film actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry.) He came to say hello and they’re getting high. Literally. It’s very funny. (Both laugh) It’s one of the tapes they’ll play for you if you go out to the Armstrong Archives.
CG It must be hilarious.
TT It’s an absolute hoot. Armstrong’s friends. Armstrong’s wife. People he knew. Musicians. It’s like a dart board. You never know what you’re going to get. Most of it is interesting but not really useful as source material. But fascinating. It was useful to me as a playwright because you got to hear what he talked like. But when he does start telling you things he’s never put on the public record before you just sit right up in your seat and take notice. Such as the nature of his feuds with Earl Hines (pianist) and Zooty Singleton (drummer). To whom he barely spoke in the last years of his life.
CG You talk about that in the book.
TT Yes. He talks about that more candidly on the tapes than anywhere else. Also the troubles he had with the gangsters in Chicago and elsewhere. Very candidly. And he talks more candidly than anywhere else on racial matters. Because he is among friends. Of course he talks quite candidly about marijuana.
CG What did he call it?
TT His favorite word for it was gage.
CG He also called it muggles.
TT Yes. He also called it Mary Warner which we actually use in the play. We’ve tried to find a perfect pronunciation for that. We haven’t quite found it yet but John’s getting there. Much less often grass.
CG How much did he smoke?
TT He smoked every day.
CG A lot?
TT It’s a little hard to tell. He smoked in the morning while sitting on the toilet. He would smoke in the evening after a gig. He saw marijuana as a king of analog of Swiss Kriss (Herbal Laxative for gentle, natural relief of constipation). One cleaned out your head and one cleaned out your body. He really saw it that way. It was a very important part of his life. He did at the end of his life give it up (marijuana) because he had to. But he felt great nostalgia for it thereafter.
CG On the tapes did he talk about the early years with King Oliver and the Hot Five?
TT He talks about Oliver often. He tends not to sit around and talk about records he’s made. He’s the same way in interviews. If you asked about them he would tell you. For example, it was one of the things that struck me and led me to probe the matter, he never talked about Earl Hines unless asked. That’s what got me onto the scent of the nature of their feud. It began officially, you might say, in the early 1950s.
CG In the book you say that Hines was a showboater who upstaged him. That there was a jealousy.
TT I don’t think I would say jealousy. Hines had been a leader for over a quarter of a century. Then he becomes a sideman for Armstrong. Hines wasn’t a really great band pianist. He was the guy out front. He didn’t attend as much as he might to backing up the other guys in the band and not just Armstrong. He also wanted to be treated almost as a co equal. Particularly in publicity for the band. That is why he left The All Stars. Because he didn’t get that deal.
CG Did you ever see any of these guys?
TT Live? Not the original crew. I’m not old enough for that. Some of the later players I not only saw but interviewed. Armstrong only on television.
CG May I ask your age?
TT I am 56.
CG You missed some good years.
TT No kidding. (Both laughing) But you know, after you’ve listened to a hundred hours of him on tape, you do feel as if you had known him. He’s completely forthcoming on these tapes.
CG Of course I remember his 70th birthday at Newport.
TT Lucky man. Very lucky man. We are fortunate that in addition to the tapes we have an enormous amount of film. Armstrong came through on film. I think if he had been white, and if he wanted to, he could have had an acting career like Sinatra had. You get a taste of this in his last film Sammy Davis’s A Man Called Adam.
(A Man Called Adam (1966) was an independent production starring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a troubled jazz trumpet player, costarring Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis and Peter Lawford. Louis Armstrong and Mel Torme appear in the film and on the soundtrack album—as does the famously versatile Davis. Adam was notable for its prominence of African Americans both in front of and behind the camera (it was produced by Ike Jones, an associate of Nat "King" Cole). The film's composer was Benny Carter. The studio musicians included Nat Adderley (who "ghosted" Davis's trumpet performances), Bill Berry, Kai Winding, Tyree Glenn, Junior Mance, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, Danny Barcelona and Jo Jones. Original lyrics are by Al Stillman.)
Armstrong had a dramatic role as an older run down, jazz musician. He doesn’t do much in the film but enough to know what we’ve missed. All of his Hollywood films are him playing some caricature version of himself. Yet his personality comes across because he is so incredible photogenic.
CG He was on screen friends with Bing Crosby but I think he commented that he was never invited to his house.
TT That’s true but nobody was invited to Crosby’s house. Crosby was a very strange bird. He was very private. But I don’t think there’s any question that he loved Armstrong. He didn’t ask anybody. And Armstrong I think understood his peculiarities. He didn’t hold it against him. When Armstrong mentions that he has never been invited to Crosby’s house it’s in passing. In a print interview.
CG In the play he talks about not being invited to Glaser’s house. (Joe Glaser was Armstrong's long term manager and a character in Teachout's play.)
TT That’s different.
CG Did Glaser go to his house?
TT The starting point for Satchmo at the Waldorf is a passage in George Wein’s autobiography “Myself Among Others” from the last summer of Armstrong’s life. He was having the big birthday party at the Newport Jazz Festival, the summer of 1970. Wein is filming him for a documentary. Between takes Armstrong said to him quite a bit of what I have him saying in the play. Talking about how (Joe) Glaser (his manager) had treated him like a Golden Goose. He hadn’t left him any shares in Associated Booking. He spoke to Wein with the utmost bluntness and anger. He felt that Glaser had betrayed him. This is the only time he ever said anything like this on the record. I haven’t found it in the tapes. But there is no question he said this to Wein. There was somebody else in the room. This struck me forcibly when I was writing the book. (“Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong”) Because it was so sharply contradictory to his public statements about Glaser. When I got the idea to write the play this is what came to me.
Charles Giuliano Do you recall how it came about?
TT I did the book tour in the fall of 2009. When it was over I went to Florida to do a residency at Rollins College. Which I do often in January/ February.
CG That’s nice.
TT It is nice. I work for it but it’s a great place. I got an e mail from John Schreiber who now runs the New Jersey Performing Arts Center but who had been a theatrical producer. He was one of the producers of Jelly’s Last Jam and Elaine Stritch’s one woman show. I didn’t know him from Adam. In fact I didn’t recognize his name. I looked it up and figured out who he was. He wrote to me at my blog and said “I read your book and liked it very much. I didn’t know Armstrong but I knew Glaser. I wonder if you have ever thought about writing a play based on this book or getting somebody to do so.” I hadn’t thought about it. The thought never occurred to me. I had never thought about writing any play. I had just written an opera. But that’s a different kettle of fish. I thought, well, this is interesting. This man knows what he’s talking about. Here I am at Rollins College. For once I have a little time on my hands. Why don’t I see what will come out? I sat down and four days later I had the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf.
CG Describe those four days.
TT I don’t remember those four days.
CG Nine to five?
TT I don’t have any memory. I just sat down and worked like a mad man. My wife knew what I was doing. (laughs) She sort of stayed out of the way and then it was done.
CG Writing dialogue was very different. What was your premise?
TT I’ll tell you exactly what I had.
CG Correct me if I’m right or wrong. There had to be the (Governor) Faubus. There had to be Glaser.
TT Right but I didn’t think of that. Now that I’ve written two more plays, and another opera libretto, I sort of know how this works. The first thing that comes to me is a stage picture. In this case it was the next to last picture in the book; the picture of Armstrong sitting in a chair in his dressing room in Las Vegas, six months before he died. Holding the trumpet in his hands. The tuxedo jacket is off. He looks old and he looks tired.
CG He was my age by the way.
TT He was a well worn 69-year-old when the picture was taken. It came to my mind, in a flash, that this is where the play will happen, in a dressing room at the Waldorf. He’s old, he’s tired, and he’s thinking about him and Glaser. Then the first line of the play “I shit myself tonight” came to me.
CG Reviewers have been talking about that line as gratuitous.
TT It’s not gratuitous in the slightest. This is the way Louis Armstrong talked. I’m utterly befuddled by why people are surprised by this language. I know how he talked. Perhaps better than anybody else.
CG Have you read the reviews?
TT A couple of them. Everybody mentions the language. Some people like it and some people don’t. Believe me there is nothing in this play that you wouldn’t encounter in a David Mamet play, or any action movie. (Speaking, slowly, and emphatically in a soft voice) It is the way that Louis Armstrong talked. The reason why it’s there at the top of the play is because it’s true. He didn’t say that sentence but he could have. He said lots of sentences like that. It is to tell the audience immediately this is not the man you saw on The Ed Sullivan Show. This is the real man.
CG Why don’t you show us the Ed Sullivan Louis Armstrong? It’s a problem with the play. We hear about him being accused of being an Uncle Tom but we don’t see that. For a younger audience that is not familiar with Armstrong they don’t know that.
TT I think they are seeing it in the performance. They are seeing a person who is not like the black public figure whom they are accustomed to seeing. I think they see it quite well. I’m not showing a performance in the play because I don’t want to do that. I don’t think that works well in a one person play. But I have integrated performance well. It’s not the center of the play.
CG But you have deliberately not allowed us to see that; the shucking, jiving, laughing, handkerchief waving, clowning Armstrong.
TT I don’t agree with you. I think you see a lot of that in the performance. John has discovered in himself the capacity to be a comedian. He’s studied Armstrong. And I think it’s perfectly visible. But I certainly don’t want to show a stage performance. I don’t want to show a man pretending to play trumpet. Nothing is sillier.
CG We saw it in Fela.
TT Did you see John lip synching in Othello?
CG But I kept looking at the actor in Fela wondering whether or not he was playing tenor sax.
TT What I have in mind is the plethora of one person plays about musicians. They are either singers, and the person is imitating them at great length, or they’re trying to mime some performance. I don’t think that works.
CG Can you think of a music bio film or play which has been successful?
TT Not one where the performer didn’t have musical skills. The Ray Charles film works because Jamie Foxx knows how to play piano. He’s playing piano just like Clint Eastwood knows how to play piano. When you see him at home playing piano for In the Line of Fire. Otherwise I don’t think it works. I really don’t think it works on stage. This play works in its own terms or not at all. I hope it contains sufficient information, and lots of people have told me they thought it did. So somebody who doesn’t know anything, other than in the most general way who Armstrong is, will find it intelligible. They will be able to follow it and understand what the nature of the conflict is. There’s a sense in which this play isn’t about Armstrong, although it’s a true story. It’s about the relationship between two people. What (director) Gordon (Edelstein) says “It’s a play about love and betrayal. These are the people about whom it happens to be.”
I don’t think we need to see a film clip of what Louis Armstrong was like on The Ed Sullivan Show. John’s performance conveys that he is this kind of person. But his language tells you that you’re seeing something altogether different.
So I don’t think in any way that the language is gratuitous.
CG We would like to know more about the music.
TT There is an extended scene when Armstrong discusses “West End Blues.”
CG That’s the only example.
TT This play is 80 minutes long. What do you want it to be, a lecture recital?
CG There is just that one little vignette.
TT That one little vignette is about ten minutes long.
CG It’s a wonderful moment in the play.
TT What do you want this to be? I’m not interested in writing a lecture recital. I’m interested in writing a drama.
CG I’m interested in what you want it to be.
TT But that’s what I mean. I want it to be a play. To have conflict. To illuminate Armstrong’s music. But that’s only a part of what it does. Otherwise, read my book. That would be my advice to people who want to know more about that. The purpose of this play is not explicitly to tell people that Louis Armstrong is the most important jazz person of the 20th century. I think it does that.
CG That’s not its mandate.
TT No. The mandate is to tell a story.
CG Let’s talk about the difference between the book and the play. The book is full of all that detail about the music with a richness of critical analysis. It is also woven through with fantastic stories. Having done that, you now put on a different hat as a playwright. How does that happen?
TT You apply the rules of playwriting. A play is about an event. The practical nuts and bolts about how to write a play. It’s not just about somebody sitting around talking. The essence of how a play is structured was most neatly summed up by David Mamet. Every scene of every effective play answers three questions. What does the hero want? Why does he want it now? What happens if he doesn’t get it?
This, and the fact that the play is initiated by an event, in this case Armstrong’s last gig, is what propels the play through time. It articulates time and engages the audience. So that they want to know, at every moment, what is going to happen next. This is what creates tension.
Conflict is at the center of every play. It’s very hard to create it in a one person play. It’s intrinsically difficult. Conflict is usually created by the conflict or two or more people on the stage at the same time. The first draft of this play contained only Armstrong. The other events in the play were talked about and described. Glaser was dead center. But I didn’t initially have the idea of having the same actor play both parts.
CG Pretty challenging.
TT I knew that it would be.
CG I think John brings it off.
TT I think so too. I knew that if I got it right it would be like throwing raw meat at an actor. He would see it and say “What an opportunity.”
And, I should tell you, this wasn’t my idea either. I showed a draft of the play to a good friend who is very theatre savvy and knows my work as a critic. I said “What do you think?” She said “I think it works. I think it’s producible. But I also know that you like one person shows in which the actor plays more than one character. Why didn’t you do that here?” As soon as those words were out of her mouth I thought Glaser. I couldn’t wait to get her off the phone. So I could sit down and start writing.
CG Miles (Davis)?
TT Miles came three weeks ago.
CG Does Miles work?
TT He will.
CG So far the critics don’t seem to think so.
TT He will. Remember those two scenes (with Miles) were written in the first week of rehearsals. They work by sharpening scenes. He will work by being more clearly identified in the first scene. When we inserted this scene we were at a stage in the memorization process where John had all he could do to memorize the scenes. We couldn’t write additional transitional dialogue to set the first scene up so everybody knows what is happening.
CG He was talking to me the other day about getting just three houra a night of sleep because he was running all the new dialogue and changes through his head.
TT It was monstrous. When we started cutting the play in the last week of rehearsal, which is what you do, we cut blocks of it. But we couldn’t write in new transitional language. There just wasn’t time for him to rehearse it. We will do that for Long Wharf. Once these changes are made, both to the speeches themselves, and to the surrounding material, and once I reposition the material which comes before the first Miles speech, changing some of it from being about (Dizzy) Gillespie to being about Miles, and then Miles’ first sentence in the revised version will identify him.
CG May I ask you a question about Armstrong’s music. In the book you telescoped his recordings with the blues women (1920s) into just a half a page of a 300 page book. It seemed like you dismissed that work. It wasn’t clarified how those sessions came about and there were quite a few. Were they just gigs he picked up and got paid for by the day? It doesn’t seem that there is an emotional investment in that phase of his work.
TT Every biographer has to make choices about what to leave out. There is no alternative.
CG I’m asking a personal question. What do you feel about that work? He recorded with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox.
TT It’s an important stage in his development as an artist and growth as a soloist. Some of them were dead center of the highest quality. The collaborations with Bessie Smith.
CG There aren’t many just five or six.
TT There aren’t many. He might have done his best playing on some of the other records. The problem with these records is that they’re not mostly with Bessie Smith. They are with singers who are not themselves interesting.
CG He recorded with Ma Rainey.
TT He also recorded with Trixie Smith.
CG Trixie Smith, Clara Smith, Hociel Thomas, they’re interesting.
TT They’re fine. They don’t interest me and I love blues.
CG They don’t seem to interest any jazz writers.
TT This British guy, and I just went blank on his name, who wrote a book published by Scarecrow, wrote a side by side analysis of all of Armstrong’s pre 1929 recordings. (Brooks, Edward: “The Young Louis Armstrong on Records: A Critical Survey of the Early Recordings, 1923-1928. “ Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2002.)
He has every one of these sides. It’s really funny because he writes these deadpan British synopses of the lyrics to each blues song. I kept asking myself, does he know he’s funny?
CG There are jazz people and then there are blues people. The blues women fall in between. For blues people it’s all about male singers accompanying themselves with guitars. Delta blues that then goes electric in Chicago. Or the Texas blues players like Lightning Hopkins and T Bone Walker. The women are urban and worked with bands.
TT They’re theatrical entertainers.
CG They are on the bottom of the jazz paradigm and don’t morph over to interest the blues purists with the exception perhaps of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. They just seem to get hung out to dry. I think it’s a wonderful and fascinating genre of music. It’s the birth of women as jazz singers
TT Have you read Elijah Wald “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” and his book “A Very Short Introduction to the Blues”? Elijah has a more sophisticated view of the blues than any scholar who has come along. He integrates all of those different strands into a single understanding of the blues to the extent to which it resembles jazz. For me, it was a simple matter of not wanting to write a 500 page book. It felt strongly about that. I prefer biographies that say what they have to say with more efficiency.
CG So you could have gone into it.
TT Of course I could, just as I could have said more about the post 1960s recordings. Every biography is an act of criticism through decision making. I devoted a whole chapter to the year 1928. I didn’t have to do that. I thought I think I need to do this. I was much more concise about the blues recordings and a lot of the Hot Five stuff than I might have been. Just because you can’t tell everything you know and you shouldn’t. I also put a lot of interesting stuff into the footnotes. For footnote hounds. I wanted the main narrative of the book, like this play, to be a story based on primary sources.
It’s true and written in a way that’s musically informed as it can only be if you’re a musician. But I also wanted it to be completely intelligible to a reader like my mother. I felt that was exactly what needed to be done.
As Michael Cogswell of the Armstrong archives said to me “Your book is a narrative biography of Armstrong.” That’s exactly what I was trying to do. Since my book there have been three or four important monographs about specific aspects of Armstrong’s life. Like Ricky Riccardi’s book about Armstrong’s later years. (“What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years”) Armstrong is important enough that there is going to be a whole literature that will spring up around him. There will be a dozen full length studies looking at different aspects of his life. This isn’t that. This is a narrative biography. So it is selective. It has to be selective. Otherwise you get lost in the kudzu. It’s just what you have to do.
CG Let’s talk about Terry. You were a jazz musician.
TT I was. I gigged on bass and played several instruments. In the world of jazz I was a bassist.
CG You were that. You’ve written a book on Balanchine (“All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine,” 2005)
TT A brief life of Balanchine.
CG You have covered dance and classical music.
TT My first book was a biography of H. L. Mencken (September 12, 1880 - January 29, 1956, was a journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and a scholar of American English.) I’m an art collector and I’m interested in all of the arts. I write about all of the arts.
CG Now you’ve gone from covering theatre to writing for theatre.
TT Both a play and an opera.
CG How has writing a play changed you? Now, when you sit in the theatre, do you think differently having spent time in the rehearsal room?
TT Some. But I had done a lot of theatre in high school and college. So I wasn’t completely ignorant of the process. What I had never done was working with professionals on the making of theatre. Not till I wrote our first opera libretto. That was the first time I ever saw a professional director stage a show. The Letter is a musical version of W. Somerset Maugham’s play (based on a short story in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree) which was filmed with Bette Davis in 1940. If you ever saw the movie that’s our opera. It was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera.
CG With music by?
TT Paul Moravec (It premiered on 25 July 2009). He won the Pulitzer Prize six or seven years ago. Interestingly enough for a piece called Tempest Fantasy inspired by the play The Tempest. We have since written another opera called Danse Russe which is a back stage comedy about the making of the Rite of Spring. It premiered last year in Philadelphia. We have other plans if somebody will write the check.
CG You said that you have written two other plays.
TT Yes, two plays since Satchmo at the Waldorf.
CG What are they about?
TT I don’t want to say. I haven’t done anything with them yet because I’ve been too busy.
CG Are they jazz related?
TT They are nothing like this play and that’s all I’ll tell you.
CG You’re working on Mood Indigo (a biography of Duke Ellington, April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974). That’s what you were doing this summer at the MacDowell Colony. (In Peterborough, New Hampshire, founded in 1907 by Marian MacDowell, pianist and wife of composer Edward MacDowell. She established the institution and its endowment chiefly with donated funds.)
TT I wrote 60,000 words of it this summer. It’s about three quarters done now and I expect to finish it in January. (During time at Rollins College?)
CG Then can we hope for a play?
TT You know, when I was at MacDowell, an idea for an Ellington related play came to me. He himself does not appear and it is not a one character play. I don’t want to say more than that.
CG What about Billy Strayhorn? (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967 a composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with Ellington lasting nearly three decades. His compositions include "Take the 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge," and "Lush Life.")
TT Strayhorn is not in this play but he is very prominently in Mood Indigo. There is an entire chapter about him.
CG Did you see the PBS Strayhorn documentary? (Billy Strayhorn; Lush Life, 2006, Robert S. Levi wrote and directed the Emmy Award-winning documentary.)
TT Oh yeah.
CG It was wonderful.
TT One of the reasons to write a biography of Ellington is because we now know more about him than any previous biographer did. The biggest question is about Strayhorn. We now know exactly who wrote what. A lot of people who thought they knew are looking a little silly today.
CG How did that come about?
TT A Dutch musicologist inspected the manuscripts page by page. He wrote a book which is a distillation of his research. (Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur, Oxford University Press.) Because of van de Leur and some other scholars we now know what Ellington wrote and what Strayhorn wrote. It’s not true that Billy Strayhorn wrote all of Ellington’s best music. But it is true that Strayhorn’s involvement in Ellington’s music is much more extensive than anyone realized after he joined the band in 1939. Increasingly, in Ellington’s later years, up to his own death (1967). The Ellington book will be longer than the Armstrong book because there are more people in it including Strayhorn and members of the band. I figure it will be fifteen to twenty percent longer than the Armstrong book. It will be written along the same lines.
CG My uncle Fred Giuliano owned a record store and I sometimes worked for him on Saturdays. In 1954, when I was 14, for Christmas he gave me my first two jazz albums. One, still a favorite, was Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W.C. Handy. The other was The Music of Duke Ellington Played by Duke Ellington (1954). Both were pioneering 12” LPs produced by George Avakian for Columbia Records. I wore the grooves out on both albums. Right around that time the first live jazz I heard was Duke Ellington at George Wein’s Storyville in Copley Square. Another uncle, Jim Flynn, was a lifetime Ellington fan and he took my sister and me to hear the band. Between sets he introduced me to Duke who in later years I got to interview.
TT Again, lucky you. That band was all over the place. On any night you could never tell how they would be. After the mid to late 1940s they became erratic. When they were on they were on. I didn’t expect to write two books in a row about jazz. Or any other single subject.
CG What about all of Ellington’s suites? It started with Black, Brown and Beige (a jazz symphony written by Ellington for his first concert at Carnegie Hall, on 23 January, 1943). There are others Festival Suite, Far East Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum is a Woman, Liberian Suite. My favorite is Liberian Suite with “I Like the Sunrise” by Al Hibbler.
TT That was ’47 or ’48. I think his composing powers declined as he grew older.
CG The Nutcracker and Peer Gynt Suites.
TT Those were mostly Strayhorn’s work. Strayhorn wasn’t credited on the suites until Such Sweet Thunder. That’s where it started (1957). He wrote part of Black, Brown and Beige. He wrote the coda of Harlem.
CG Harlem Air Shaft?
TT No Harlem the extended piece (1950). The fact that Strayhorn’s contributions to the band were not consistently credited in the 1940s was a major point of contention between he and Ellington.
CG He thought of him as an employee.
TT No, he didn’t. Ellington knew what Strayhorn was and how gifted he was. Strayhorn didn’t want to be out front because he was homosexual. He wanted to lead his life without being a band leader and thus in the spotlight. They collaborated closely and well. He was quite lavishly compensated. Ellington paid him to do a lot less work than Ellington did because he valued his contributions. But the price that Strayhorn paid was that Ellington was the guy who everyone knew about. When they began to write the suites together, and Strayhorn was not credited for them, who wrote what? If you look at the contemporary reviews Ellington always gets the lion’s share of the credit. Often, specifically, for pieces that we now know were entirely written by Strayhorn. This is one of the things that my book will focus on.
Ellington is like Orson Welles. He’s a great genius, and a great editor, and I think a great composer. But he did like you to think that he did it all himself. He always used that royal we in conversation. People who use the royal we mean me. I don’t want to take anything away from Ellington’s genius. He was a genius but he didn’t do it all himself.
CG Terry are you a genius?
TT No. (emphatic and clipped)
CG Consider all those hats you wear.
TT I’m versatile. I’m a dilettante. I’m a person who professionalizes his hobbies.
CG Are you being coy or understated?
TT No, look, I know what a genius is. A genius is Duke Ellington. A genius is George Balanchine. A genius is Louis Armstrong. I’m a bright guy who has a systematic mind and knows how to make the most of the talents he has. I’m not afraid to try things.
CG Are you restless?
TT No, but I bore easily. It’s not quite the same thing.
CG Do you have ADD?
TT I just get bored easily when people are being boring. (Both laugh)
CG That’s a significant qualification for a theatre critic as I am sure you see a lot of boring theatre.
TT I sure do.
CG How do you endure that?
TT Some nights are easier than others.
CG Do you look at your watch? Do you feel your ass?
TT Do you know the story about Harry Cohn? When he was running Columbia Studios he used to say “You know how I can tell if a movie is going to be any good or not? I go see the rushes. If I start squirming in my seat I know there’s something wrong.” Herman Mankiewicz, the guy who really wrote Citzen Kane, heard this story and said “Imagine the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass.” Even though that was a very clever line, the truth is, that Cohn was right and Mankiewicz was wrong. If you become physically restless in a performance there’s something wrong. That’s when you start to try to figure out what it is. It’s the first sign that something is amiss.
CG When do you start writing your reviews?
TT It depends. Three hours before the deadline.
CG When I was writing for the daily Herald Traveler we had midnight deadlines. You never stayed for encores hitting the aisle and racing for your car. You were writing the lead in your head on the drive to the paper.
TT During my first work as a critic, which was back in the late 1970s, in Kansas City (Star) was as a music critic. In that first year I was writing for over night.
CG It’s a great discipline.
TT It is. It was terrifying and wonderful. Of course nobody does that anymore.
CG What a pity.
TT It is and it isn’t. It’s good to have done it. It’s good to know how to do it. I can do whatever I have to do. But I really don’t like to write on that deadline. I like to sleep on it. What I saw. At the very least.
CG Do you write next day?
TT If I’m in a departure lounge (at an airport) probably not.
CG I try to write while it’s fresh. The longer I wait the more I lose.
TT I have not found this to be the case. It’s just the way different people’s minds work. I take illegible notes which I never consult. It’s like an act of faith. I find that when I sit down to write the piece, as I did this morning, I just wrote a review of French Without Tears (a comic play written by Terence Rattigan in 1936) everything comes back.
CG So you have good recall.
TT Very good recall. That makes what I do a lot easier.
CG What kind of details do you retain? Reading different critics some focus on the performers, others discuss the director, some include the costumes, light, sound, and set design.
TT It depends on the show.
CG Do you see everything?
TT I don’t see costumes. When the lights go down you try to be completely present and put away all of your preconceptions about the show. And see what you’re seeing instead of what you expect to see. I think that I do that well. I do not write well about costumes because I do not understand clothes. (CG laughs) My wife laughs about this all the time.
CG How do you feel about knowing the people you write about? Or having relationships with theatre companies.
TT I have very few such relationships in New York. I have more relationships with regional companies because in some cases I am coming back several years in a row. You just get to know people that way.
CG Do you hang out?
TT Very infrequently. There are half a dozen people in regional theatre whom I would describe as friends. But I do not feel the way that the New York Times does, institutionally, that their critics should have no connection to the world of the art form they write about. You shouldn’t know anybody. I think that’s like being the eunuch in the harem.
CG Frank Rich gave an interview/ lecture here (at the Colonial Theatre) in which he described studiously avoiding any relationships in the theatre world. He said that there was one exception. Stephen Sondheim.
TT Yes. Well, I would say that he learned a lot from Stephen Sondheim. I have learned a lot from all of the people I have casual dealings with. And that small number of friends. The Journal expects me not to fraternize and not write about people to whom I have close personal ties.
CG Do you do interviews and features?
TT No. It’s sad in a way. I love writing interviews. If you’re a working performance critic, ideally, you shouldn’t be writing that kind of piece about people you are covering. It just gets too complicated.
CG Ok. I understand that. But the artist is the primary source. There is such an incredible body of information to be had. To divorce yourself from that is to put yourself out of a learning curve.
TT I know. I agree with you. The main reason I don’t do interviews is because I don’t have time to anymore. I’m always looking for opportunities to talk to people about what they do.
CG If you had the chance to talk to Sondheim would you?
TT Sure. It’s never come up. Fortunately, Sondheim has unfolded himself pretty extensively in interviews, in a very candid biography, and the two new books about the lyrics and in the very good book “Sondheim on Music.” He is interviewed at length by somebody who has considerable technical knowledge of music. It’s enormously illuminating. If I had a chance to meet and talk to him I would.
CG Who are the immortals today? Those individuals who, given the opportunity, you would love to talk with?
TT Kenneth Lonergan (born October 16, 1962). He’s both a playwright and screenwriter of supreme gifts. I would really like to sit down with him and talk about what he does. Lynn Nottage (born 1964) is a playwright whom I admire enormously. The play she really hit with is Ruined a play about sexual persecution in Africa. She’s a black playwright whom I think is astonishingly gifted. Whenever people say to me “Who are the playwrights that interest you the most?” she’s one. Tom Stoppard obviously. Brian Friel (born 9 January 1929) is the greatest living playwright writing in English anywhere. There’s a new playwright, a young gal, I think she’s at Yale named Amy Herzog. She’s someone I’m really interested in now. She just went on the list of people who’s work I will travel to see. That’s the category number one. I flew to Chicago to see a play of her's that I missed in New York. When I found out how great she was. Or promising I should say.
CG Did you see Iceman Cometh in Chicago?
TT Sure did. I reviewed it but didn’t say a word about John (Douglas Thompson starring in Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf). We had a top level discussion about this at The Journal. I don’t have a backup. This is an important production. I said “Guys, what should we do?” My editors discussed it and said you should go and review it but you cannot mention John in the review. So I didn’t. Thus making me the only critic who didn’t mention what a brilliant performance he gave.
CG Do you now have to pass on covering Thompson?
TT For a stated period of time. As well as this company (Shakespeare & Company) Long Wharf and any production directed by Gordon (Edelstein who is directing Satchmo). And, as far as the design team goes, I can’t talk about their work during this period of time. We developed this policy, not for this play, but for my first opera. Because it was directed by Jonathan Kent who is a very distinguished British theatre director. It was designed by Hildegard Behrens, costumes were designed by Tom Ford. I was very transparent with the Journal. I said I may be writing an opera. It may be commissioned by a major opera company and we have to figure out what to do. Because there’s no precedence for this. The last time any working New York critic wrote a play that got to Broadway was 1950. That was Wolcott Gibbs of the New Yorker (March 15, 1902 - August 16, 1958). He wrote a comedy called Season in the Sun directed by Burgess Meredith. It had a very respectable run for that time.
CG What chance does Satchmo have?
TT I have no idea.
Charles Giuliano What happens to Satchmo after its run at Long Wharf?
Terry Teachout I want this play to be performed as widely as possible. Ultimately by as many people as possible. But that’s not something I can make happen.
CG What is your level of vulnerability when you change hats and create work in the discipline you write about as a critic? I’m an art critic as well as an exhibiting artist. When I was included in a curated group show a critic wrote about ever other artist except me. When I asked him about it he said “You can be a critic or an artist but not both.”
TT You know. I’m middle aged. I have a pretty clear sense of self. I’ve been reviewed for a quarter of a century. I’ve written several books and now two operas. This play which has received, I don’t know, a dozen reviews. I’ve just been glancing at them. I read the Boston Globe review because, obviously, it was having a major effect on the life of the company. Who I want to please is John (Douglas Thompson who stars in Satchmo). And Gordon (Edelstein the director). Then the most important critics of all are the people who come to the show every night. Criticism doesn’t mean as much now as it did fifteen years ago. It doesn’t have as much of an effect. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t have as much of an effect on the life of a play.
CG Can you make or break a play?
TT All of the New York critics working in concert. Not that we ever do anything in concert, all might feel pretty much the same way about a marginal show. We can make it or break it. We cannot make or break a musical which is being very well promoted. I can considerably increase the prospects for a marginal show. For a show where the other reviews have been ambivalent. I make a big difference in regional theatre. I can sell a show out. Because of the nature of The Journal and its audience. That’s about as far as it goes. Acting alone I can’t kill any show. I guess I could kill a regional show. Remember that I choose the shows I see outside of New York. I cover all Broadway openings. That’s the deal with The Journal. I pick what I see other than that. I’m not usually wanting to send myself to see shows that I think are going to be awful. Because I only have so many slots. I don’t want to waste my fire. I also don’t want to sit through a bad show.
CG I’m 71.
TT So you remember when critics were great.
CG I remember when jazz was great. I got to hang out with the musicians.
TT I remember the days when musicians could make a living.
CG This summer at Tanglewood we heard Chris Botti, Mynton Marsalis and the Christian McBride Trio, Gary Burton with Chick Corea. With all respect we are in an era of academic jazz. You go to college to learn how to play jazz. Now an MFA is no longer a terminal degree. They are pushing doctorates in fine and performing arts for tenure track college positions. It is feeling too schooled.
TT Some of it is. We have players today who are as great as we’ve ever had. I would say that Gary Burton is one of them. He is one of the most underrated soloists and innovators in jazz. But, sure, it’s in the nature of things.
CG Isn’t that the essence of Armstrong’s fight with Miles and Dizzy? In the play there is discussion of Dizzy saying that the music has to be more progressive. Satchmo retorts that he had just one year of training on cornet at the Colored Waif’s Home and that he did pretty good with that. He was intuitive so what about that?
TT But a man with an enormously curious and thirsty ear. One of the most illuminating things for me while writing Pops was looking at the records he owned. The content of his collection is catalogued and he taped them. This guy listened to everything. He loved Chet Baker.
CG Who wouldn’t?
TT Well you know better than that. (laughs)
CG I was listening to a Chet Baker CD on my drive here today.
TT I love Chet Baker but we are talking about one of the most maligned musicians.
TT A lot of people didn’t like him but I thought he was a genius.
CG Why? Because he was a junkie?
TT They just think he’s too pretty. I don’t. I’m totally on board with Baker but so was Armstrong. He had albums by Thelonius Monk (emphasis) in his collection. When he talks about liking grand opera that’s not a joke. It’s just staggering what records he had.
CG Is “West End Blues” based on opera as you indicate in the play?
CG Can you illuminate that?
TT That opening cadenza is a kind of cross between coloratura singing and the coloratura derived cornet solos at the turn of the century by people like Herbert Clark. I was the first scholar to identify records in Armstrong’s collection by Herbert Clark.
(Herbert Lincoln Clarke, September 12, 1867–January 30, 1945, was a cornet player, feature soloist, bandmaster, and composer. His playing emphasized technical aptitude, warmth, and lyricism of tone. He also produced several method books that are still used by brass students.)
They clearly left their mark on that opening cadenza for “West End Blues.” Satchmo says “I put everything I knew into that motherfucker.” I made that line up but it an amalgam of a wide range of sources. The version we hear on record was almost certainly prepared in advance. I don’t mean to say he sat down and wrote it out but he worked it out. Played it on the gig and developed it into a set piece. And played it like that for the rest of his life.
CG What interest do you have in Jelly Roll Morton who is mentioned in the play?
CG As a part of last winter’s Armstrong seminar I listened to the Library of Congress (with Alan Lomax) series and sent all eight CDs to John and some jazz friends. I also urged John to read the Lomax book “Mr. Jelly Roll” as a part of his research. (CDs and a copy of the book are included in the Rounder Records boxed set.)
TT Morton is without doubt one of the key figures in jazz in the first half of the twentieth century. And he’s still enjoyable. There’s a lot of early jazz that, for various reasons, is not so easy for modern ears to listen to. Including the King Oliver recordings. Mainly because they were so poorly recorded that it is just hard to get back there. Morton is one of the very first jazz musicians whom we can receive as if he is contemporary. He doesn’t sound like a bebop band but the recording quality is good.
CG Are you talking about the Hot Peppers?
TT Yes. They are electrical recordings from 1926. He makes sense to us in a way that Oliver doesn’t.
CG What about Morton’s Library of Congress series? Have you listened to all that?
TT Yeah. Sure. Of course you have to take it with a stalactite of salt. (Both laugh)
CG I made a set of CDs to listen to as we drive around in the car. We were listening to one “Wining Boy” which just went on and on with dirty chorus after dirty chorus. Astrid said “This is the filthiest thing I have ever listened to.”
TT It does get your attention. Morton may be the first person who recorded language like that. It’s possible that he is. The big difference between Morton and Armstrong as autobiographers is that, and I really went into this, Armstrong is always trying to tell the truth as far as he knows it. After the age of eight, he is an extremely reliable chronological source for his own life. Morton wanted you to know how cool he was. He has to be approached with caution. That said, he is an immensely important primary source. Besides that, he is a lot of fun to listen to.
CG My favorite image from the Lomax book is the story of him driving the Lincoln while towing the Cadillac and getting stuck in a blizzard. I believe he was driving cross country to stay with his sister in California.
TT Yes he was. It breaks your heart. He too, like Joe Oliver, ran out of luck and Armstrong had all the luck. He was a genius and a good man.
CG You are a white man writing dialogue for a black man. Can you talk about that?
TT Everybody asks about that.
CG There are such loaded racial terms used by both Armstrong and Glaser. What sensitivities do you have walking through that?
TT I didn’t really think about it. I had internalized Armstrong’s speaking voice through listening to the tapes. I found it quite easy to write the way he talked. It just wasn’t hard for me. I some cases I found it difficult to write it down so that it would be easy for an actor to speak. What I did was look at how August Wilson renders this kind of speech. Do you need apostrophes? Do you leave out the “g’s”? That kind of thing. And I used him as a model. But I didn’t use him as a model for the language. Glaser was harder because I had to make him up. There’s one, ten minute, radio interview with Glaser which survives. And he’s being very careful.
CG William Styron got savaged when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). He was attacked for the audacity of a white man trying to write in a black voice.
TT Times have changed.
CG So you think it’s a period issue?
TT That’s part of it. It should be perfectly obvious to anybody who has read my book that I know how Louis Armstrong talked.
CG You don’t have that language in the book.
TT You don’t have it in a continuous stream but you have plenty of quotations which contain very strong language. John didn’t boggle for a moment. Neither one of us uses that kind of language over dinner. He recognized that it was authentic and correct. He just sailed into it. Again, he had a harder time with Glaser. Technically.
Dennis Neal, who performed this play for the first time in Orlando, grew up in a neighborhood of New York where everybody talked like Glaser. So he got Glaser’s voice immediately. It was Armstrong he had to work on. Nowadays, of course, the world is full of racial sensitivities.
Here is something that may interest you. During my very long book tour I expected somebody to ask me “What business do you have writing a book about Louis Armstrong?” Nobody did. Never once. They just assumed that I had walked the walk and could therefore talk the talk. That’s the same way with this play. I spent a lot of time revising this play to make Armstrong’s language consistent with itself. Everyone has their own grammar. Everyone has their own way of speaking. I put a lot of time into that. I revised and changed it painstakingly when Dennis first performed it. My goal was to have it so natural that an actor could simply read it off and he wouldn’t stumble. There wouldn’t be any idioms that seemed alien to him.
CG I can speak from my own experience as a jazz critic during the late 1960s and 1970s. It was challenging to walk into dressing rooms and talk with musicians. You never knew what to expect.
TT Of course but that was a different time.
CG Once I was having dinner with Roland Kirk and members of his band. Rahsaan (a blind, multi reeds player) was rocking back and forth when he went into a tirade about “the motherfucking white jazz critics.” I just wrote it down while the band members were falling off their chairs trying not to laugh out loud. You could hang with Miles as long as you were cool.
TT Did not presume.
CG It was tough.
TT One of my favorite stories about that is one Bill Evans (piano player with Miles) told. He was playing with the sextet and very nervous because he’s a very white guy.
CG There was a lot of heat on Miles because of Evans in the band.
TT Miles, who was a very rough teaser, came up to Bill one day and said “Man, I haven’t told you this before. But you’re going to have to fuck everybody in the band.” He said that with a perfectly straight face. Evans sits there for a moment and says “Miles, you know, I just don’t think I can do that.” Miles burst into ecstatic laughter. He got it.
CG Miles was wonderfully generous and I treasure the time I had with him.
TT I’ll tell you what though. The Miles speeches (in Satchmo) are mostly based on what he said. There is one thing there I adapted from the most shocking thing that he was reported to say. I think it was Ralph Gleason who heard it. It might have been Leonard Feather. One or the other. This white, teenaged kid, with stars in his eyes, comes up to Miles between sets and says “Mr. Davis how did you ever learn to play like that?” Miles looked at him and said “By…” That’s how I got the line in the play about how Louis makes it tough for all of us by "…. to make a living." That was the source for that.
CG What state is the play in now? Are you making daily revisions?
TT The play is frozen.
CG Do you see it every night?
TT Gordon has said to me always skip nights. If possible two nights in a row. Whatever he says I do. We froze the play, except for one line that had to be added three or four days before opening. Then we started taking notes for Long Wharf. I’m starting to execute those now. We’ve seen a lot of performances. We have an idea of what’s working and what isn’t working. Things we couldn’t have fixed in the later stages of rehearsal. We’re tightening it a bit. We hope to take about three minutes out of the first half. It’s running between 80 and 83 minutes.
CG What are you learning from this process?
TT The first day of rehearsals Gordon said “Why don’t we make Miles a character?” That was pretty exciting.
CG That was his idea?
TT He and John thought it up. They didn’t say “You need to do it.” They said “What do you think? Might that work?” I said let me go home and see. So I wrote the speeches. When we started cutting there were things that we cut on the spot and I didn’t think twice about doing that. I’m not sensitive about that. That’s part of being a journalist. You realize that if it’s got to be shorter you make it shorter. If they’ve never heard it they don’t know what it was. We’ve done this for the operas too so I understood that. The two most interesting things that are happening to me are, first, I’m watching a director at work. Gordon has opened the bag to me. He knows that I might like to direct, myself, some day.
CG Another hat.
TT I staged the first workshop reading of this in Florida about a year and a half ago. I thought, maybe I can do this. So Gordon will lean over to me and explain why he did this. Or, this is how he did this. I’m paying very close attention. The other thing is watching John’s performance evolve from night to night. And through rehearsals. We don’t get to do that in my business. We see a show once. If it’s a play I’m interested in I’ll seek out a regional production of it to see whether I’m responding to the performance or the play. John’s performance changes every night in response to the audiences which also vary widely.
What we discovered early in the run of the play is that there are basically two kinds of audiences. They either receive the play as a serious comedy or as a funny drama.
CG Do you see it as a comedy?
TT No. When I wrote the play, before we performed it in Orlando, I thought it might have five laughs in it. I thought I knew where they were. For that first performance, for two thirds of its length, it was received as a comedy. When it gets serious the laughs would just turn off. I was flabbergasted. Flummoxed. So I knew this when I came to Lenox. I said to John, “Your’e going to get some laughs.” He said “Don’t tell me where they are. I don’t want to play for laughs.” So he also was staggered during the first performance.
It is interesting to see how an actor like John (Douglas Thompson) shapes a performance night after night with different audiences. Specifically in the comedy areas. John is learning. He now knows where the laughs are.
CG He has been studying comedy this past year.
TT He’s never done it. There’s not a lot of laughs in Othello. But he took to it instantly and now.
CG He’s been studying comedy.
TT Yeah. It was fascinating to read that New Yorker profile. He knows where the laughs may come on any given evening. Without mugging, though he mugs like Armstrong to be like Armstrong. Without mugging in that other way. He knows now how to go with the audience. To bring them to him and make the laughs register. If something goes wrong on stage he knows how to improvise.
CG What are we going to see in New Haven (Long Wharf Theatre)?
TT This play but tighter. The transitions that had to be done crudely because we were making cuts at the last minute, during the final week of rehearsal, will be smoothed out. There will be some speeches where the order of events will be changed for ease on the ear. When I first wrote the play I thought of Armstrong as a rambling story teller. I learned, and Gordon (Epstein the director) showed me, you can create that illusion but you really have to be very careful about tense and sequence. So the audience can follow you right down the narrative trail. In the last scene, for example, we transposed two speeches so it flows more correctly to the end. The two Miles (Davis) speeches, although they will contain the same content, will be recognizably different. The second one, the order of everything that happens in the speech will be changed. For the first one there’s a new transition as I mentioned earlier. It sets it up so everyone in the audience will know without question that it’s Miles Davis who is standing there. We just couldn’t fix that here. You don’t worry about it. You go with what you got.
And, of course, the play will be done with a radically different stage. At Long Wharf it is a modified proscenium, a shallow shoe box. John will be closer to more of the audience. As a result, some of the laugh lines which are being played upstage will work better in Long Wharf. On the other hand, he won’t have that wonderful house left, downstage corner which he loves to work. It is where Glaser spends a lot of his time. The set will have the same elements. We may have a tape recorder rack that looks like the one that Armstrong used. You can’t here because its tall and would block some of the views.
CG John said that you’re not allowed to use the tapes. I asked why not have some of the sound of the tapes?
TT I wouldn’t want to.
CG He said they wouldn’t give you the rights to the tapes.
TT They might have but we didn’t ask for it. What I was always concerned about is that I don’t want the audience to hear Armstrong’s speaking voice. Because John is not imitating Armstrong. No actor can do that.
CG What if it were John’s voice on the tape recorder? Listening to himself?
TT He could do that I guess. But I don’t see any point to it. I don’t want to use the tapes verbatim. Casual speech is not theatre. There are probably three or four lines in this entire play which are even close to verbatim. They’re shaped so that they flow more clearly. They sound like the way he talks. If you try to play a transcript of somebody’s conversation as a piece it’s going to be full of hesitations, false starts, turn backs. It won’t be theatrical. I would expect that people who knew Armstrong, who saw this play, would say ‘Yeah he talked like that.’ But he never talked exactly like that. Because it wouldn’t work on stage. The main thing is that I don’t want anyone to hear Armstrong’s voice because I don’t want them to compare John to Armstrong. He’s a foot taller than Armstrong was. It is interesting in the last scene where suddenly he looks like an old Armstrong. I’m afraid to ask him how he does it. It’s like his cheeks have sunk. It’s a very strange illusion. I said this at the beginning, and the script says this, “Don’t imitate Armstrong. Make an Armstrong out of yourself." That’s what I want and that’s what he did.
CG I have been working with John for four years now starting with Othello. We are trying to have dialogues documenting his roles. Most recently we posted a discussion of Iceman and his roles in O’Neill's plays.
TT If John’s career develops as it should you will want to write a book about him.
CG It’s been a complex, demanding and difficult dialogue. You talk about the spontaneity of speech. John has been insisting on editing the dialogue.
TT And I think he’s right to.
CG On this last O’Neill dialogue he went over it like a script. He has such a precise sense of language. It’s not so much to change the dialogue, but rather to make it more exact, and true to his thoughts and feelings. He wants the punctuation and diction to be precisely his.
TT John’s an intellectual. Most actors aren’t. As John will tell you, acting in and of itself, is not an intellectual art. You don’t function as an intellectual in the rehearsal room. Preparation is another matter. He is deeply profound and thoughtful about what he does.
CG That’s what we’ve been talking about. How do you develop these roles? What kind of research goes into them?
TT He has actually seen film of Armstrong that I didn’t have access to when I wrote the book. I’m agog. It’s one thing to know that somebody did this and another to watch them do it.
CG In your opinion this is not the norm for actors. That kind of preparation.
TT That kind of preparation is not uncommon for actors on the very highest level. Were you there for opening night?
TT Did you hear the speeches? Did you hear Gordon compare John to the greatest actors he’s ever known? I endorse that entirely. I think that John is one of the greatest actors in the world. I think he’s on the same level as the greatest actors of the century. I think he will be recognized as such. He’s increasingly recognized as such by critics in New York.
CG When is the mainstream going to catch up with that?
TT Maybe with this play. He’s never done a role like this. Never done a one man show. He’s done very little contemporary theatre. He’s never done anything that displays him outside the context of a genius. This play is not a vehicle for him. It wasn’t written for him. It never occurred to me that John Douglas Thompson would want to do my first play. No. I’ve done some hand stitching of it in rehearsals. He’s contributed a lot to the draft that we’re performing. But I never imagined that he would do it.
CG Just what is the synergy of the rehearsal room? He’s been talking about getting just three hours of sleep at night. That there’s just Gordon and you.
TT And the stage manager.
CG Nobody to interact with or to take a break. That it all rests on him.
TT Nobody to perform for. He talks a lot about that. Gordon’s immediate response to that was that the audience will be your scene partner.
CG So what is the synergy of the rehearsal room? You were at all the rehearsals.
TT I think I missed one. My goal was to be at all of them.
CG So you’re sitting there taking notes?
TT What I’m doing is making two kinds of notes. Notes for Gordon because, if I have any suggestions, they go through him. He’s the director. I’m not back stage directing. I’m not a back seat director. I’m also noting wherever John deviates from the text, considering the possibility that his deviation might be more natural, and superior to what I wrote. There have been a lot of one and two note changes in the script which have just come out of John’s mouth. At this stage we are looking for trends in the rehearsals. As Gordon says, every beat of the play moves the ball down field. We want to make sure there are no redundancies. We don’t want the audience to get ahead of you. At an earlier stage in the process John said, “Couldn’t we say a little more about this.” The second half of the “West End Blues” scene, the one where he scats, that wasn’t their idea, but they did say “Can we have more? It really seems to be working well.” They phoned that in to me when I was at MacDowell. They did a run through of it at Martha’s Vinyard. They said, this scene is really working. Can we get more into it without turning it into a lecture recital? Gordon mentioned something else to me “You know, John can really sing the ‘Hello Dolly’ bit.” We didn’t know. How could you know that? We didn’t audition him for it.
So, I’m walking around MacDowell thinking, so, what would I do? Then the thunderbolt hit me. I almost fell down. (emphasis) Armstrong Sings in “West End Blues.” Which I’d forgotten about. I went straight back to my studio and wrote that part of the scene. I brought it with me to Lenox and we put it in. We knew immediately that it worked. At first he’s scatting along with Louis Armstrong. I assumed, he can get the first two lines and the last one. The stage directions told him to sing the first two lines then hum along with it. No. He’s learned it. Suddenly, I realized he’s going to scat the whole thing. I don’t even know how to write those solos down for the script. He’s amazing.
CG I asked John is the play is going to Broadway? Half in jest he said that if it comes to that they’re going to ask Denzel Washington.
TT (Guttural utterance) No. John is the right guy to do this show.
CG He has a concern about not having that Hollywood, marquee appeal that producers demand.
TT He has something else. He’s a critic’s darling. Every critic in New York thinks, correctly, that John hung the moon.
TT Haven’t you heard that expression? It’s a Midwestern idiom. He’s so great he hung the moon on a hook. He’s got that credibility going for him.
CG So you think critics would want that to happen?
TT I don’t know. You can’t second guess critics. I should know. I don’t anticipate this play going to Broadway.
CG Off Broadway?
TT I would like for that to happen. It’s out of my control.
CG It seems destined for another round of regional theatre.
TT I would like for that to happen. John would like for that to happen.
CG Take it out for awhile then bring it in.
TT It’s too soon to answer these questions. We may have the answers to them in two or three weeks. Right now there’s a lot of interest in the play. Several artistic directors of regional theatres have come to see it here. I’m not going to say more than that, More will be coming to Long Wharf. The word is out about this play. First, because of the New Yorker profile and then the cover of American Theatre Magazine. The current issue. Everybody knows about this. They know that John has never done anything like this. He had a success. He was received with great éclat in Iceman. John’s the story. Not me. But is it a sort of a story that this critic wrote a play? This seems to amuse people. Gordon, quite rightly, I think Gordon is one of the three or four best theatre directors in America.
When it became clear to me, about a year ago, that this play had a chance for professional production, up to that moment it was an interesting game I was playing. At that moment, I allowed myself to draw up my fantasy list of who I would love to direct this play. It had three names on it and one was Gordon Edelstein. John was not on this list because he never occurred to me.
CG You were thinking of Denzel Washington. (Laughs)
TT No, I wasn’t. I was specifically not thinking of Denzel Washington. It never occurred to me that John, a Shakespearian actor, would have wanted to do this show. When Lizzie (Aspenlieder of Shakespeare & Company) asked me “Would you be interested in having John do a reading of it?”
CG Is that true?
TT Perfectly true.
CG That’s amazing.
TT You could have knocked me down. She called me up and said “We want to do a reading. What about John?” I probably fell out of the chair. I was staggered. I knew, specifically, having seen him in The Emperor Jones in New York, I knew he could eat this up. But Gordon, I allowed myself to fantasize. What I didn’t know was how serious and knowledgeable he is about music. He knows as much, not technically, but, as a listener, as I do. And about all kinds of music. It’s staggering. I had seen enough of Gordon’s work to know that he would be able to balance the two sides of this play. The anger and the lyricism. Gordon seems like a tough guy but he’s actually a poet. He’s so good at detail. I admire him extravagantly. So I let myself fantasize that Gordon Edelstein might direct my play.