LENOX — John Douglas Thompson was “just a kid” the first time he saw Louis Armstrong, on TV.
“To be honest, I kind of discounted him, in that I just didn’t think he was important. He sang ‘Hello, Dolly’ or something like that, and his music wasn’t the music that I was listening to,” the actor, 49, said the other day. “I just saw him as, like, this old man on television, kind of a throwback, if you will, from another time and another era, who didn’t really have any impact on me and wasn’t important to me.”
Now, of course, Thompson knows that Armstrong (1901-71) was a colossal figure in jazz and American popular culture. His public persona was much criticized during the civil rights era, but Armstrong was vastly more complex than the beaming, crowd-pleasing figure on TV.
And it’s Thompson’s task to bring the private Armstrong to life at Shakespeare & Company in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a new play by Armstrong biographer and Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout. The one-man show, Teachout’s first play, will have its New England premiere Wednesday through Sept. 16, then move to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in October. Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein directs.
Both Teachout, in writing the play, and Thompson, in interpreting it, have drawn on the many hours of tapes, now held at Queens College in New York, that the trumpeter made during the last years of his life.
“The audiotapes were the most revealing, because what you hear on the tapes is a very different person than what we know of him publicly. And that’s what was so fascinating about the play, and that’s what made me really want to participate in this project,” Thompson said. “You’re kind of peeling back the veil. It’s the man behind the smile.”
The lean, tallish Thompson bears little resemblance to Armstrong, a smaller, rounder man who is old and sick when we meet him in “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” But performance can triumph over physique, and Teachout described a moment like that from rehearsal.
“John puts on the Armstrong-in-street-clothes outfit, and he gets into position onstage, and then he smiles Armstrong’s smile,” the playwright recalled. “I usually keep my mouth shut in rehearsal, but I just couldn’t help it. I said, ‘My God, you look like him.’ And we all started laughing and went back to work. But it was quite eerie, because John does not resemble Armstrong in any way. But he did then, and that’s the mark of a real actor.”
The play begins as Armstrong — whose nicknames were Satchmo and Pops — returns to his dressing room after a set at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. It’s March 1971, and he’s playing his last public gigs, just months before his death. Looking ill, he puts down his trumpet and grabs for an oxygen mask, then launches into a sometimes profane lament about the trials of old age. As he slowly recovers from the exertion of performing, he turns on a tape recorder and begins to reminisce.
“There’s probably only half a dozen sentences that are verbatim or close,” said Teachout, who wrote the 2009 autobiography “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” “But he doesn’t say anything in the play that I don’t think he would have said.”
A central thread in the piece is Armstrong’s relationship with Joe Glaser, a nightclub owner in Chicago with mob connections who became Armstrong’s longtime manager, protecting, promoting, and exploiting him, sometimes all at once. Thompson plays Glaser, too.
“The story is really about this performer and manager and this symbiotic relationship they had,” Thompson said, “and how they both needed each other. It’s a relationship that can become combustible at times, but you see that there was a true affection and a true love from one man to the other.”
Armstrong’s music was criticized as behind the times when artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane were turning jazz on its head in the 1950s. But amid the civil rights and black power movements, the criticism targeted Armstrong’s image. Just in the last week or so, at Edelstein’s suggestion, Teachout added Davis to the play, giving Thompson a third persona to master.
“Terry is relatively inexperienced, but he’s got a great ear for the voice of the character he’s writing,” said Edelstein. “I don’t know how to compliment him enough for how open he has been.”
Teachout, 56, grew up in Missouri, was a jazz musician as a young man, and began his journalism career writing about jazz and classical music for The Kansas City Star.
His interest in the intersection of race and music started early. He remembers that the nicest restaurant in town had a separate entrance for blacks, marked with a red neon “colored” sign. “Flash-forward a decade, the restaurant had turned into an Elks club, and the band I was in was playing there. Now that was the entrance the musicians were expected to go in,” he said with a laugh.
Teachout has written librettos for two operas, but he said he’d never considered writing a play until after “Pops” came out, and he was doing a residency at Rollins College in Florida. A “Pops” reader who was a theatrical producer sent an e-mail asking if Teachout had thought of adapting it for the stage.
“I had some time on my hands,” Teachout said, “so I sat down, and four days later I had a first draft.”
The following year, in January 2011, the college hired actor Dennis Neal for a staged reading of the play’s first 45 minutes. Neal and a partner produced the world premiere of a two-act version in Orlando that fall. At Edelstein’s suggestion, the play is now a one-act and runs about 80 minutes.
Edelstein, who had given Teachout feedback on early versions, was interested in producing at Long Wharf, and Shakespeare & Company was also eyeing the play. Eventually they decided on a joint production, with Thompson as the star.
“I’d call it a dream come true, except I never would have had the nerve to dream any of this,” Teachout said, shaking his head.
He won’t be able to review plays at either theater for a while, by agreement with his editors at the Journal. “You don’t have to write a play to be a good critic,” he said, but “becoming involved in the process has taught me things that I don’t think I could have learned any other way,” especially about the role of the director.
Thompson is well known to New England audiences for his performances at Shakespeare & Company, the American Repertory Theater, and Trinity Repertory Company. He also recently finished a run in “The Iceman Cometh” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, with Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane.
The most important thing “Satchmo” offers him, he said, is the chance to do right by Armstrong.
“I gained an appreciation for this man that grew exponentially,” Thompson said. “I want to go deep with the character and explore these issues, because it’s like a moral obligation to do the best I can to represent Louis Armstrong.”Joel Brown can be reached at