Terry Teachout was a kid playing in his big backyard on a Sunday night in 1965 when his mother called him into the house.
"My mother said there’s somebody I want you to see on the television because I want you to remember him when he’s gone. And it was Louis Armstrong playing "Hello Dolly" on the Ed Sullivan show. it made a permanent impression on me."
Eventually Teachout, who was a classically trained violinist, taught himself to play bass so he could play jazz. "I loved all kinds of music. But jazz was the kind I liked to play best." He translated that into ten years work as a professional jazz musician, before finally realizing he was a better writer than a musician. "And the hours are better," he says laughing.
But he never let go of his passion for jazz and combining those two areas of interest has worked out well for Teachout. The drama critic of The Wall Street Journal is the author of several books including Pops:A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009) and most recently Duke: a Life of Duke Ellington. After his book came out about Armstrong, a theater producer approached him saying he thought there was a play in there.
"I hadn’t thought about writing the play. I got the bit within my teeth and the first draft was done in 3-4 days. Then I spent the next year polishing it."
The setting is 1971 New York City, backstage at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In the Alley production Jerome Preston Bates plays Louis Armstrong and every other character in the play as the famed jazz man reflects on his artistic career and relationship with his manager. Armstrong will be dead just a few months later.
"That was where his last gig was just a couple months before he died. There’s a photograph of Armstrong sitting in a chair backstage after one of his performances looking old and tired and I looked at that and the whole idea for the play came to me," Teachout says.
The play has been performed in theaters across the country and what makes the Alley production more distinctive is that Teachout was brought in at the last minute to direct thanks to the abrupt withdrawal of director Gordon Edelstein of New York's Long Wharf Theater who was put on administrative leave at his home theater after sexual misconduct allegations were raised against him and the Alley announced it was replacing him.
But this won't be a novice at the helm. Teachout was first asked to direct two years ago and says he found out he loved it.
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"Palm Beach asked me to do it I hadn’t thought about doing it and I got out there and I realized this is fun and I think maybe I’m good at it. So when I got the email from the Alley I thought ‘Well if I can possibly make this work,’ — and it was tricky — I’m going to say yes. I can’t pass up this opportunity. And fortunately everything did work."
Armstrong was a person who presented one side to the public that wasn't the whole man. "We think of this Superman on stage but he was a human being too. He got tired and he got angry and he said words he did not say on television," Teachout says. Google the play and an audience member comment comes up from someone disgusted by the profanity Satchmo at the Waldorf. Told this,. Teachout laughs, saying, "I can assure you having listened to about 600 tapes of his private conversations that the language in this play is very authentic. It will startle some people who haven’t hung out with jazz musicians."
Asked why anyone should come see this play, Teachout responds: "They get to know a great American in a way they don't know him. They will see what he's like onstage and offstage. And in the process maybe they'll acquire some insight into why he was so great an artist and so great a man."
Performances are scheduled for February 28 through March 18 at 7:30 Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26- $95.