Terry Teachout America's Drama Critic

On the Road for the Wall Street Journal

By: - Sep 04, 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 duites 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 and this is the first installment of that in depth dialogue.

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 Not in the later years. As Lucille (Armstrong’s wife) said “They are not the kind of people who got along face to face.”

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four