Barry Shabaka Henley

It’s 1971. Louis Armstrong has just finished a set at the Empire Room in New York’s Waldorf Hotel. He’s sitting backstage, ready to share his story with you. And the first words out of those legendary lips? “I shit myself tonight.”

As perfectly embodied by Barry Shabaka Henley, the gravel-voiced, 70-year-old horn player goes on to recount how the situation dawned on him as he and his wife took an elevator down to the gig, how he had to go back to his suite and clean himself up.

We’re meeting a Satchmo in the final year of his life, when all systems are starting to fail—except, perhaps, for his sense of the mot juste. Soon after his shit-myself comment, Armstrong drops a vivid profanity and gives us a look. “I guess you never heard me say ‘motherfucker’ before,” he smiles.

The promos from Court Theatre said Satchmo at the Waldorf would offer a different view of Armstrong, and they meant it. Turns out the entertainer who reigned for years as America’s safest, sunniest black man retained a touch of the kid who learned to play a cornet at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs.

But the revelations go a good deal further than bad kidneys and a potty mouth. In this engrossing 90-minute solo show written by Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout and directed by Charles Newell, they go to the man’s paradoxical core.

I’ve always been puzzled by the schizoid quality of Armstrong’s career, growing up with Satchmo the pop-eyed old uncle (an image just this side of Ben on the rice box), who sang saccharine tunes like “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World”—while also hearing about Satchmo the musical genius who taught everybody how to play jazz. Apparently, Miles Davis found the contradiction pathetic: getting a cameo courtesy of Henley, he makes the case for Armstrong as a sellout.

Teachout draws a more nuanced picture, however, of an artist whose gift ran up against personal abandonment, American racism, and the realpolitik of an entertainment business run by organized crime. As Satchmo demonstrates again and again, Armstrong’s talent was both distorted and distilled by these influences. He lived through wildly volatile times, changed them, and was changed in his turn, but seems never to have given up his mission. As he said in life and Henley repeats for him onstage, “I am here in the cause of happiness.”  v