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All That Jazz

There’s not much that’s more disheartening than listening to Frank Sinatra crooning Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” — “Heaven holds a place for those who pray, hey hey hey, whoa whoa whoa . . .” It’s all off, as though Sinatra is out in a twilight zone between the Count Basie/Duke Ellington era, which set the world to dancing around World War II and which propelled Sinatra to stardom with sexy, saxy big-band arrangements, and that of the erudite, laconic ’60s-’70s pop folksters — a conga line of lamentation extending from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen, with the Vietnam War plonked right in the middle.

Without belittling Sinatra’s attempt at “crossover,” it’s easier to cross backward than to cross forward. For example, it’s easier for contemporary Sting to pull off a ditty from a Weimar cabaret or for Annie Lennox to croon “Keep Young and Beautiful,” with all its ragtime embellishments, than it is for a vintage Sinatra (great as he was) to inhabit a song by Paul Simon.

Among the many beauties of Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart’s spanking new musical, Like Jazz, at the Mark Taper Forum (with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), is the purity of its attempt to examine the popular music of a generation that came of age during and after World War II — and nothing more. No attempt to dramatize the entire history of jazz, thank you very much. And no pandering: no bogus, superficial attempts, like in Swing!, to mythologize an era by giving it the fake sheen of a TV commercial for AT&T.

Like Jazz starts and ends with the music, which is its central and relentless passion. Everything else follows — Judith Dolan’s mostly street-style costumes, the gothic arches looming behind D. Martyn Bookwalter’s bandstand set, sometimes rimmed in neon light, other times painted in the leafy textures or the historical backdrops of Marc I. Rosenthal’s projections.

It’s easier to describe Like Jazz by amplifying what it’s not: It’s not, like Mama Mia!, a recapitulation of already existing songs from an era, with a mocking scenario thrown in to string together the mélange. Coleman’s music and the Bergmans’ lyrics (sometimes laced in saucy double-entendres) are entirely new, though in a singular jazz style prevalent in this country from the mid-’30s through the early big-band ’50s. No John Coltrane here. Not even Dave Brubeck.

It’s not, like Dinah Was or Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (currently playing at the Fountain Theater), a biographical musical. In fact, it adheres more to a song-sketch or cabaret format than to anything with a plot. Nor is it a mere concert — despite the onstage band, heavy on the horn and sax sections, and an ensemble of 16 actor-singer-dancers, headed by Patti Austin, Lillias White and Harry Groener, who narrates in the black garb of a late-’40s hepcat.

Gelbart’s dialogue has Groener riffing on what the music means — “a vamp is like foreplay,” a trumpet solo is an “inventory of shattered expectations.” These romantic-poetical meditations on style and tempo frame Coleman’s 18 songs and provide a delicate unity.

Gravel-voiced trumpeter Jack Sheldon plops out from the band like a sweet dumpling to sing the comic “Don’t Touch My Horn” — a glint in his eye as he croons, “Don’t lay a finger on my instrument.” The glorious, crop-haired White oozes sensuality in “He Was Cool,” about the sax appeal of that particular instrument, played here by Peter Christlieb — as dancer Carlton Wilborn writhes to Patricia Birch’s erotic musical staging and choreography.

Though wobbling sharp in the torch song “Biography” (the life saga of a trumpeter) on press night, headliner Austin was beyond reproach in ballads such as “Being Without You” — a duet with charismatic Cleavant Derricks, and in the playful “Scattitude,” in which she reincarnates Ella Fitzgerald and her “scat” technique — bringing the human voice as close as it can get to replicating a musical instrument by replacing meaningful lyrics with gibberish.

One of the production’s few missteps is the inclusion of “The Double Life of Billie T” — a biography of Dorothy Lucille Tipton, who masqueraded as a man in order to sustain a career in jazz. Though hardly an egregious sore thumb, the song plays by a different set of rules from the rest of the cabaret: In a musical that’s more about music than character, its photo-album realism scrapes against the play’s ephemeral essence.

 

Around the time Khrushchev slammed his shoe on the table across from John F. Kennedy in an attempt to intimidate the new American president, my father-in-law walked five miles every day to work — to Moscow’s Theater of Musicals, where he conducted a jazz band in the American style — and provided arrangements for his orchestra. It was a project funded by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, whose agents would occasionally visit him and suggest that his orchestra was not sufficiently “Russian” — meaning that it contained too many Jewish musicians. (He politely ignored the reproaches.) Today, my father-in-law never leaves his tiny bedroom, where he sits, or lies, in a cot, paralyzed from the waist down — among the infirmities of age and a mysterious, chronic ailment that parallels Russia’s paralysis and decline as a world power. He speaks not a word of English, but his ruminations are peppered with a few American names that remain beacons of uplift from the icy winters of his youth, and from the memory of Joseph Stalin taking away his own father in the middle of the night: “Ellington, Fitzgerald, Basie, Sinatra.”

Coincidentally, at about the same time in another corner of the world — London’s East End — my own father conducted a jazz band, in the American style, playing much the same music that had lifted a generation of Britons from the privations of World War II.

In Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, among the defining tones arching their way up from beneath a St. Louis fire escape are those of a jazz band. The style of music in Like Jazz, which obviously traveled the world, was born in the antebellum South, then embellished in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which boasted a thriving club scene along Central Avenue in the ’30s. And though plagued by the LAPD’s attempt to keep the scene racially segregated, it was every bit as vital as that in Harlem.

I’ve heard detractors complain that Like Jazz is a trifle, that it isn’t really about anything. If they really believe that, they’re not paying attention. The show viscerally captures the relationship between the music and the despair from which it springs — the way it could lift, even for a moment, an entire generation out of depression — both psychological and economic.

Different forms have now taken over that massive function — primarily movies, television, rock music and hip-hop and rap. By the early ’60s, jazz had submerged into some cultural sub-current. Today it can be found only in a smattering of clubs, maybe half a rack at Tower Records, Ken Burns’ epic film, and retrospective Broadway musicals.

This work is, in some ways, director Gordon Davidson’s homage to his youth, as the Taper’s artistic head winds through his final year helming the theater he’s run since 1967. It possesses a quality of fearlessness that hasn’t been seen on the Taper stage in some time. Notwithstanding the 18-piece band, and the expense that must accrue from it, the work purports to examine the whys and wherefores of a once glittering art form, and it accomplishes just that with a pristine focus that is both commercial and anti-commercial at the same time. It packs Act 2 with ballads, tender and sometimes difficult, in a greater proportion than in most musicals or concerts. Like Jazz is in search of something that can’t be understood, but can at least be felt — the mood in a sliver of history, a memory — and it doesn’t rest until it finds something, feels something, and transmits that feeling.

It’s particularly refreshing to know that a work of commercial, retrospective theater need not, by definition, be a diversion, that it can be an emotional investigation driven by curiosity and love.

LIKE JAZZ | By LARRY GELBART, CY COLEMAN, and ALAN and MARILYN BERGMAN | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown, (213) 628-2772 | Through January 25


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