WHEN JAZZ HAD THE BLUES
A “Live Production” Review by jazz journalist Dee Dee McNeil – Nov. 19, 2016
A musical play has opened in West Hollywood depicting the very private and personal life of Billy Strayhorn, directed by John Henry Davis. Billed as a “New Musical World Premiere” and written by Carole Eglash-Kosoff, I attended their opening weekend on Saturday, November 19, 2016. The producer, Leigh Fortier, has already garnered over 20 LA Weekly Awards for prior productions, so I anticipated an entertaining evening. “When Jazz Had the Blues” stars Frank Lawson as Billy Strayhorn, Michole Briana White as Lena Horne, Gilbert Glenn Brown as Strayhorn’s lover, (Aaron Bridgers), Boise Holmes as Duke Ellington and Katherine Washington as Trixie, the married Ellington’s mistress. Pianist, Rahn Coleman is the Musical Director and has put together a tight six-piece jazz ensemble featuring himself, Quentin Dennard on drums, Michael Saucier on bass, Stephan Terry on Keyboard II, Rickey Woodard on alto saxophone and Eric Butler on trumpet. They are somehow squeezed onto a tiny raised stage to the left of the 99-seat Matrix Theater on Melrose Avenue. Happily, the small quarters do not obstruct their big, beautiful, jazzy sound. The night I attended Ricky Woodard was missing and a sub was present.
The first scene features actor Boise Holmes playing a dual role as Strayhorn’s father, camouflaged in a long trench coat and floppy hat, trying to beat the ‘sweetness’ out of his son. Later, Mr. Holmes transforms himself into the very believable character of Duke Ellington. For those who are not familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s biography and legacy, many of his legendary compositions were stolen by Ellington, who often took credit or shared credit for tunes he did not pen, including “Take the A-Train.” The play shows how this transpired and how Strayhorn was bilked out of thousands of dollars; royalty money he rightfully should have received. Michole Briana White, plays a convincing part of a love-smitten Lena Horne who has fallen deeply for Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn unfortunately thinks of Lena more as a sister and has no interest in the opposite sex. Ms. White has a forceful and dynamic singing style and brought the house down with her renditions of “When the Sun Comes Out” and “Lady Is a Tramp.” Below is an original composition by this singer/thespian to give you a taste of her voice.
Frank Lawson is believable as the character of Strayhorn with his horn-rimmed glasses and meek personality. However, there is nothing meek or frail about his voice. He sang a beautiful rendition of “Sentimental Mood” where his voice soared and was plush with emotion. He also was quite convincing as a pianist, although it was Musical Director Rahn Coleman that was actually playing the 88 keys behind the scenes.
Gilbert Glenn Brown, who plays Strayhorn’s love interest, also offered a powerful voice and performance. I enjoyed his rich, baritone rendition of “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.” I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Covert, who did an outstanding job of singing “My Romance”, although hidden behind a screen where only his profile along with a shadow dancer were shown. They were a back drop during an intimate conversation with Lena and Billy Strayhorn, but his vocals propelled that scene; smooth and memorable. I would like to have seen the songs listed in the program and the names of those actors performing these memorable jazz compositions.
This play deals with three complex relationships that Billy Strayhorn had with Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Aaron Bridgers. Strayhorn is plagued with unrequited love, alcoholism and frustrated by the business of music. This production shows a side of America’s great, jazz genius that many may find sadly surprising.
Unfortunately, I thought the second scene of the play dragged a bit and I found some of the ensemble scenes unnecessary. On the other hand, the casting was superb and so was the music. I also would have enjoyed less unison and more harmony in the choral scenes. Historically, this play is informative. It reminds us of years ago, when Billy Strayhorn was standing proudly for who he was in a society that was quite unaccepting of gay rights. It also reminds us that Lena Horne was standing tall for civil rights when discrimination of African Americans was acceptable behavior in America. This artistic production is a reminder, and may we never forget, our important fight for equal rights and human dignity. http://www.plays411.com