Hello, Louie!

The Satch is back and blowing our way in "Satchmo: America's Musical Legend," a musical biography of the late, great, gravel-voiced jazz institution Louis Armstrong.

And Jerry Bilik, the author/composer/director of the show that opens Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, seems remarkably unflustered about the $3 million production with 31 scenes, 42 performers "and all sorts of mechanical stuff." Perhaps that is because Bilik has emerged not from Broadway and its disciplines but rather from the Big Top tradition, having worked for "Satchmo" producer Kenneth J. Feld and his Washington-based Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and all its attendant ice shows, animal acts and what-have-you.

"People have asked how I appear so calm, with a show this big," Bilik says. "But let me tell you, after 22 elephants, Bulgarian and Moroccan acrobats and everyone else running amok, the size of this show doesn't seem nearly as awesome as it might to other people."

Bilik says he hopes "Satchmo," with a cast of unknowns and amateurs choreographed by Maurice Hines, will do much more than just rehash the myths about the Man. And they are many:

Born on the Fourth of July. In New Orleans. In 1900, at the very bottom of the social heap. Reported first words "Oh, yeah!" First band: the Colored Waifs' Home quartet. Rose from the blossoming of jazz in the honky-tonks and perfumed brothels of Storyville to become the beloved bandleader/singer/clown/movie star/unofficial ambassador. "Doc, you don't understand -- my whole life, my whole soul, my whole spirit is to blow that horn," he said not long before he died on July 6, 1971.

But the music lives on -- Armstrong is, perhaps above all, one of the most important figures of 20th-century music, who remodeled and popularized jazz, and in so doing, influenced many other musical forms. And his impact as a spokesman for civil rights has yet to be recognized. For all this he remained a simple fellow who never demanded stardom.

"Ideally, that's what I want this show to say," Bilik says. "Here was a generous, happy, uncomplicated man who communicated with great music."

But Bilik soon found it wasn't that simple -- though Armstrong didn't live the life of a "tortured artist," beneath his apparent simplicity was, of course, the complex life of any artist -- and human -- and telling it for the stage would be difficult.

"Getting involved in this show was like the story of the guy who went to China," Bilik says. "He's in China two weeks and he says, 'Wow! I can write a book!' After two months, he says, 'I can write part of a book.' And after a year: 'I can't write a thing -- there's just too much.' "

" 'Satchmo' really came about in 1983 when my father {circus magnate Irvin Feld} was still alive," says Kenneth Feld. "{Armstrong's widow} Lucille approached us because my father had booked Louis for many years -- often at Carter Barron -- and toured him, too." So the Felds acquired the rights to Armstrong's life story from Lucille, and began planning a production.

Irvin Feld tapped Bilik, who had scored, conducted and directed several circuses and ice shows, but had only one musical to his credit, a '60s item called "Brass and Grass Forever," involving a plot between the Pentagon and a band of hippies. For his part, Bilik had always considered himself a modern jazz buff, not so much interested in the traditional Satchmo-style stuff.

"See, I was a trombone player," Bilik says. "So my big hero was Jack Teagarden, who, ironically, traveled from Texas to New Orleans to hear Louis Armstrong. He was one of the first white musicians who went to hear Louis, and he knew what Louis was long before other people did -- even before Louis himself did.

"I saw Louis once when I was in college at Michigan; he came there to tour. At that time I was into progressive jazz, but I thought, let's hear this guy who started it all. But what I didn't expect was how he captured and enraptured a 5,000-seat auditorium. In 10 minutes it was like a nightclub. We were way up in the top somewhere and you couldn't believe the charm. The vibes went up right along with the sound. But that was sort of the end of it till Irvin came up and said we have the rights, go and see Lucille and see if there's material for a play."

And so Bilik, armed with a tape recorder, apprehensively approached the Corona, Queens, home of Lucille Armstrong, the jazzman's formidable fourth wife of 30 years.

"She was very suspicious," Bilik says of Lucille Wilson Armstrong. "And she wasn't the only one. Just before I had met her, a television movie about Louis starring Ben Vereen had come out. And she was very upset about it. She said, 'I know you have the rights and they're sold and all that, but I pray -- I'm gonna be next to you Jerry -- and if you put him out there rollin' his eyes and smiling . . . that's not the way Louis was.' She hated that caricature, and that people considered that's all he was. I decided early on that the play would be how she saw Louis."

Gradually, Bilik gained Lucille's confidence -- even took her to one of his Disney-styled ice shows -- and over the course of a year, a picture of Armstrong began to emerge.

"Mostly we sat out in the park and talked about general things, then about historical things, then personal things," Bilik says. "Toward the end, we looked at photo albums and she invited me down to the basement to listen to some of Louis' 500 or so reel-to-reel tapes. He loved to candidly record people who would come over. He would play records and then they would all talk about the records.

"Lucille was marvelous, attractive and intelligent," Bilik says, "very sensual even in her sixties. She was different from Louis; she was very sophisticated, she was from New York, Catholic, intelligent, upper-middle class. She loved the child in Louis and he loved that in her. But she had no illusions about him -- she understood how he felt about his horn and music and what the other girls and all that had to do with it. I just took her view of Louis and his life, and there's the play.

"Lucille said, 'You better do this play right -- don't make up stories about him.' And at every stage of creation of it, that was on my mind. My wife and I became very attached to her, and her death {of heart failure in 1983} was a great blow. I had counted on her to make sure the play was what she wanted -- I knew if it was what she wanted it would be the right thing. That's the reason I dedicated the play to her."

Biographers are often attracted to the potential "good copy" in the torments of an artist's life -- Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe come to mind. But there's a marked absence of Sturm und Drang in Armstrong's life, and Bilik reports the show's early critics have asked, "Where's the drama?"

"Louis' life wasn't full of great dramatic conflicts and overcoming handicaps. He started poor, but he took everything so easily that any conflicts there were he just tended to dissolve and absorb. He didn't have a Billie Holiday life. Unfortunately -- from a dramatic standpoint. The closest he came was that he had an obsession with a thing called Swiss Kriss that was this very, very strong laxative. In fact, I had a whole song that I called 'Swiss Kriss' that I loved. But that's gone.

"We decided we would try to capture the reality of how someone like Louis Armstrong came to be. Because there wasn't any thunderclap or anything like that. The drama is this gorgeous, incredible music. The play is more of a celebration of performing, to let the audience share in how much fun it can be.

"The thing that I thought was interesting was how Louis developed physically, artistically, socially, commercially, and yet how he basically didn't change. And the only way to show that was to set up a chronology and show him passing through and being essentially the same. In the early scenes of the young Louis {played by 11-year-old trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley}, in New Orleans, his essence is right there. You see him as a kid trying to get a trumpet for the first time, he snows this bandleader at a reform school, you see the essence of what he later becomes."

A semistaged reading of the first draft of "Satchmo" was held in the fall of 1985 at Howard University, in cooperation with the University of Maryland.

"We didn't use any musicians, just actors, and just read it, talked it over, made lots of conceptual changes," Bilik says. "Like a lot of biographers will do, I wanted to get everything in, I couldn't leave anything out. Then I realized you wouldn't want to sit and listen to a three-hour lecture about Louis Armstrong."

The casting involved a widely publicized, nationwide Satch Search for an Armstrong look-alike, or sound-alike or preferably both, and open auditions resulted in about 900 surrogate Satchmos.

"It was very strange, there were more white applicants than black," Bilik says. "One guy came in with a picture of himself with brown shoe polish all over his face. 'I can do it,' he says. Another guy threatened to sue Kenny {Feld} because of 'reverse prejudice.' One of the greatest ironies was that one of the best people was a black woman in Los Angeles who really had him down, could sing right in his pitch and was a great jazz player. Lucille would have just loved that!"

The Satch match: Byron Stripling, a 25-year-old Atlantan who has played lead trumpet for the Count Basie Orchestra for the last three years.

"So Byron comes in, he's huge and he doesn't look anything like Louis," Bilik says. "And I said 'no way.' But when Byron got up and picked up the trumpet, everything in that hall stopped. He doesn't move, he doesn't make faces or any of that type of stuff, but he blows a trumpet like Louis does."

An added stress for Bilik was that 90 percent of the cast were amateurs. "Louis' relationship to musicians is what the play is about, but this decision precludes any extensive dramatic scenes because they're not actors. I thought, 'Jerry, you are absolutely insane! What makes you think you can mount a professional commercial play with people who have never even been on a stage before, much less acted?' But seeing 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' on Broadway, which had a half-and-half cast, was what convinced me to go for it."

To deemphasize dialogue, Bilik wrote original songs, but he also uses an ample selection of Armstrong standards: "Hello, Dolly!" "Mack the Knife," "Back Home in Indiana" ("Louis always liked to start his show with that, so we did, too"); "Struttin' With Some Barbeque," and of course, "The Saints."

A word or a few from "Satchmo" choreographer Maurice Hines:

"I met Louis Armstrong around 1957 -- I was around 11 or 12, and I fell in love with him instantly. I was performing in Larry Steel's Smart Affair, which was playing in Las Vegas at the Dunes Hotel. And I remember him coming backstage with two of his musicians, and he walked right into the showgirls' dressing room, and I remember the image of him surrounded by all these beautiful women with no clothes on. And they didn't put any clothes on either!

"He had a thing that all the great professional entertainers had to have if they were to become a star, instant rapport with everybody. Nat (King) Cole had it, Judy Garland had it, and Louie had it; you saw his smile and you had to love him.

"I don't like the way black artists are portrayed in films and theater, and I've turned down many projects because of this. The last thing I saw about Louie was {the Ben Vereen} movie that showed him as an Uncle Tom figure, just a happy, smiling clown. And I say, hey, he was more than that, a complete man with problems, especially in a racist society. Not that we're out of the woods, but our problems today are nothing compared to what he had to face coming up.

"I didn't know Louis liked so many women, but I learned that his love of women was beyond just the physical. His first and third wives were call girls; his third, Lil Hardin, was a great piano player; and his fourth, Lucille, she was like his mother, he gravitated toward strong women. And he was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, which is something that not many people think of. School desegregation in Arkansas, he spoke out. The president and the press turned away from him and a lot of the great stars turned against him, too -- now Lucille would never say who, you understand."

All involved are quick to point out that this is a show for "the people."

Bilik: "We designed 'Satchmo' as a show for ordinary people, like the circus was, so everyone could enjoy it. I don't think it will be a great critical success. I just want to let the music and dancing work, and stay out of their way."

Hines: "These are musicians acting, and no one expects them to be James Earl Jones. All the shows these days are getting so high-tech that if something doesn't work, the show stops. When we opened in New Orleans, one of the mechanical bandwagons got stuck but the show went right on, and I was so proud. Our show is about the talent."

Feld: "We decided to tour the thing. It's a very popular, populist vehicle, and touring is a business we know better than anything else." Feld, who was involved as coproducer of "Barnum," "The Three Musketeers" and "Lillian," says "Satchmo" is likely to tour the United States through spring -- with, significantly, no New York stop planned -- then perhaps go on to Japan and Europe.

And maybe that's the best way to do it, taking "Satchmo" to the people he loved and who loved him. After all, Satchmo himself said, "Music's my language, on all those trips all over the world . . . You understand I'm doing my day's work, pleasing the people and enjoying my horn."