Founded by Molly Ryan and Bria Skonberg in 2015, The NY Hot Jazz Camp, held not in tents or bunks, but at Greenwich House Music School, presents an opportunity for both young people and adults (separately) to learn from some of the best artists in the community, to meet like-minded musicians, and to be broadly exposed to a genre epitomized by such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. This year’s session ends with a knock-out two hour concert at Birdland. If you want to feel better about the world, listen to these performers. (Personnel below)
“Royal Garden Blues” (Spencer Williams) sounds like anything but. Jesse Gelber’s stylish piano has clarity and clout, surprising power in curved fingering; Jim Fryer bends forward from the knees, back from the waist, then swivels (like the music), his trombone an extra limb; Randy Reinhart takes curves on cornet like a luge; Nick Russo’s guitar is layered, resonant; Jared Engel almost lays his head on the cherished bass communing; Dan Levinson’s clarinet gleefully gambles; on drums, Kevin Dorn is upright, deadpan, arms with a life of their own…
Molly Ryan and the Band-Bria Skonberg trumpet
Portions of the band have played together for 28 years, but until tonight have never all shared a stage and are we lucky! There isn’t a weak link. Mutual admiration is palpable, symbiosis exuberant.
“What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?” (Walter Donaldson/Abe Lyman) arrives not with regret, but rather a shrug and an amble to the next adventure. Levinson’s sax is smoooth, Russo pats, plucks and strokes guitar, Engel’s bass and Fryer’s trombone converse, Reinhart’s sound zig-zags.
Vocalist Queen Esther offers Alberta Hunter’s lively “My Castle’s Rockin” and a honeyed “Your Jelly Roll is Good” …but it ain’t as good as mine…like a true storyteller with unerring attitude and silent film eyes. Later, Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” (the lady should do a Smith show) and a bottle of beer…sashays in with sinuous clarinet, rear wiggling banjo, chortling trombone, and the singer’s use of subtle wrist and hip action. Her alto is clear and strapping. Fryer’s trombone makes sarcastic comments. It’s perceptibly a voice.
Queen Esther and the Band
We’re treated to an early Tin Pan Alley number vocalist Molly Ryan calls her current mantra. “Save Your Sorrow” for tomorrow/Smile awhile today…(Buddy De Silva/Al Sherman) is the single ballad in the show. Ryan’s creamy phrasing leaves understated, vibrating trails that disappear down her throat. She makes it look effortless. Gelber’s piano scintillates with companionable appreciation.
Bria Skonberg replaces Reinhart on trumpet for Leo Wood’s “Somebody Stole My Gal.” The foot tapping, head bobbing rendition isn’t at all mournful. Skonberg’s contribution is bright, lucid and wide-stroked. Denouement is sweet, exit emphatic. “I’m going to play second trumpet to my King Oliver, she then announces referring to Oliver’s mentoring of Louis Armstrong. Face to face, or rather horn to horn, Skonberg and Reinhart joyously play (think jungle gym, seesaw, and slides) Lew Pollack’s “That’s A Plenty”. Horns are sassy, banjo stunt skates, bass draws rhythm like breath.
The evening closes with “Blues My Naughty Sweetie” featuring the mastery of nimble-fingered Levinson (also our appealingly wry MC) and Dorn’s impressive drum turn during which both Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich must be smiling. (Dorn never does.)
These consummate musicians make me want more hot jazz in my life. The audience leaves energized, beaming. What more could one ask?
Guest Banjo: Cynthia Sayers
“Our goal is to provide instruction to musicians of all skill levels, who want to further their knowledge in the styles of traditional/classic jazz in a positive and supportive environment. The curriculum pulls from jazz’s inception in New Orleans through its journey to New York and Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s and subsequent West Coast stylings.”
Opening: The Band
NY Hot Jazz Camp
May 21, 2017
315 West 44th Street
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was a controversial figure in his time recognized as much for his arrogance as he was for his talents as a jazz pianist and composer. Jelly Roll Morton, as he was known professionally, boasted that he invented jazz, a claim rejected by historians and fellow musicians. There’s no doubt, however, that he contributed mightily to jazz’s growth and made significant contributions to the genre’s songbook. Jelly’s Last Jam, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, brings to the stage a talented group of performers to celebrate his life and legacy.
Mark G. Meadows with the cast
Signature Theatre is transformed into the Jungle Inn nightclub, the Washington, D.C. bar where Morton worked and managed in 1935. (The actual address for the bar was 1211 U Street, NW, adjacent to what is now another D.C. landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl.) An intimate atmosphere is created, small lamps with fringed shades adorn a dozen or so round tables that ring the stage providing seating for some audience members. (We almost expect to see waiters running around serving drinks.) Decorative chandeliers evoke the feeling of a dance hall. Side runways link the back stage to two circular platforms in front where several of the production’s stunning dance numbers are performed.
When the musical opens, Morton is dead and, aided by the enigmatic “Chimney Man” (Cleavant Derricks), is looking back on his life, warts and all. While Morton possessed incredible talents, he was also misogynistic and racist, insulting and often cruel to those around him. Born into a wealthy mixed-race Creole family in New Orleans, Morton was drawn to the music being played in the streets of his native city, mostly by poor blacks. His conflicts about his ancestry – he rejected his African American heritage, claiming to be of French descent – damaged both his personal and professional relationships. He left his mark on jazz, yet we’re left to wonder how much greater would his influence have been if he had not alienated so many along the way.
Mark G. Meadows
Young Jelly, played by Elijah Mayo, is tossed out from his home by his strict grandmother (Iyona Blake), who disapproved of his musical aspirations and particularly disliked the seedy bars he was playing in. With few options left, Morton becomes a traveling musician, but his family’s slight will continue to haunt him. As the adult Morton, jazz pianist Mark G. Meadows brings the many facets of this complicated entertainer to life. While Meadows’ jazz credentials are stellar, including popular albums, concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and many other venues, and accolades for his performances from the press, this musical marks his acting debut. Hopefully, this won’t be the last role he tackles.
Guy Lockhard and Mark G. Meadows
Having an actor who can play the piano and sing results in a fuller portrayal of Morton. But Meadows displays his acting skills during some of the most challenging scenes, including one which involves a confrontation with perhaps Morton’s best friend, “Jack the Bear,” played by Guy Lockhard, another standout performer. What transpires is so searing there were audible gasps in the audience and then silence.
Mark G Meadows and Felicia Boswell
Jelly finds the love of his life, Anita (Felicia Boswell), when he vies for a job in her club. While she’s impressed with his talents, she’s put off by his hubris and makes him work for her approval. Morton wins the job as well as her heart, but he sabotages the relationship before it can get started. Meadows and Boswell have a natural chemistry and their duets are thrilling to watch. Boswell, whose Broadway credits include playing Josephine Baker in Shuffle Along, infuses her strong voice with so much emotion that we feel her joy when she falls in love with Jelly and her heart-wrenching pain when he verbally abuses her.
Despite the dark moments from Jelly’s life, the musical is uplifting entertainment. The leads are backed up with an exceptional cast of singers and dancers. For fans of tap dancing, don’t miss it! Because these dance moments take place on those circular platforms, the audience can witness up close the energy and technique displayed by each dancer. Incredible choreography by Jared Grimes.
Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, Eben K. Logan
Dede M. Ayite’s costume design reflects the time period with the glittery flapper dresses worn by the female trio of Kara-Tameika Watkins, Nova Y. Payton, and Eben K. Logan, and the dapper suits sported by Meadows and the other male actors. Derricks’ Chimney Man costume presents as both authoritative and foreboding, consistent with his role in raking over Jelly’s many transgressions that may lead to a less than desirable life after death.
Director Matthew Gardiner has once again staged a Broadway-worthy show that is hugely enjoyable. And because of Jelly Roll Morton’s connection to the area, one that should interest local audiences.
Photos by Christopher Mueller
Top: Mark G. Meadows, center, with the cast
Jelly’s Last Jam
4200 Campbell Avenue