Fact and Fiction in Satchmo at the Waldorf
FROM Henry V to Amadeus, most plays about historical figures are more or less fictionalized—usually more. So is Satchmo at the Waldorf. I’ve never claimed that it’s anything other than, as the script says, “a work of fiction, freely based on fact.” If you want to know which parts are true and which are made up, all you have to do is consult Pops, my 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong. If it’s in the play but not the book, it didn’t happen.
If you haven’t read Pops, it might interest you to know that:
• Everything that Armstrong says about his life and career in Satchmo is pretty much true—much truer than what you’ll find in the average Hollywood biopic.
• I invented all of the dialogue, but much of it is based on things that Armstrong and Miles Davis actually said or wrote. Virtually all of Glaser’s dialogue, by contrast, is made up out of whole cloth, since he gave few interviews and left behind no diary or personal letters.
• Armstrong was one of the first people in America to own a tape recorder. Starting in the late Forties, he recorded, among other things, his private conversations and personal reminiscences. More than six hundred of these tapes survive, and I was the first biographer to have access to them. It’s because I listened to so many of Armstrong’s tapes (which include the only known radio interview with Glaser) that I was able to suggest the way that he talked off stage.
• According to George Wein, the co-founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, Armstrong said in 1970, a year before his death, that he believed himself to have been betrayed by Glaser. That alleged betrayal is the hinge on which the plot of Satchmo at the Waldorf pivots. After seeing Satchmo off Broadway, Wein wrote to tell me that my portrayal of the Armstrong-Glaser relationship was accurate, and many other people who knew both men have since said the same thing.
• Miles Davis criticizes Armstrong’s onstage behavior in Satchmo in much the same way that he did in real life: “Louis, he’s got to play the clown. Nod his head and grin real big like he’s some kind of old-time darky.” But he also said different things about Armstrong at different times, some of which closely track what he says in the play and some of which do not. My “Miles Davis” is a deliberately simplified version of the real Davis, a Greek-chorus character who expresses the hostile attitudes toward Armstrong’s performing persona that were widely shared by younger musicians, black and white alike.
• Some people have come away from Satchmo at the Waldorf supposing that Armstrong died penniless and had to work to the end of his life in order to pay his bills. Not so. In fact, he says exactly the opposite in Satchmo: “It ain’t about the money, got me plenty of that.”
• I don’t want to give away the “reveal” at the end of the play, so I’ll say only that Glaser’s rap sheet, as well as the contract that he reads out loud in his next-to-last scene, are both based on public records. I made up everything else—although it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened just like that.
I believe that Satchmo at the Waldorf is fundamentally accurate in its portrayal of Louis Armstrong’s personality and attitudes. Nevertheless, its “accuracy” is not that of a primary-source biography like Pops. Satchmo is a drama, with all the compression, transposition, and alteration implied by that word. If you’ve seen A Man for All Seasons, you’ll know what I was trying to do. If, on the other hand, you prefer the plain, unadorned facts...well, you know where to go!