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
My New Orleans was a city of my teenage past. I lived there in the 50’s and 60’s and, once I left for college, spent very little time there. Mine was a city where driving down Bourbon Street and peeking in at the strippers was a evening family activity, where teenagers could ride around the city safely at night, watching the colorful lights of the Mardi Gras Fountain by the lake, getting front row seats to hear Al Hirt in his bar, having dinner with friends at Commander’s Palace, being served old fashions at a high school graduation lunch at Arnauds, of walking up the stairs of a half-demolished house in the French Quarter to attend a party.
I had been back only once since Katrina, and I was still searching for coffee with chicory, the reliable favorite creole foods, traditional Dixieland jazz, and a Bourbon Street worth seeing. Starbucks seems to have replaced the coffee with chickory; recent cooking trends have replaced much of the food I grew up eating—or transformed it in some way; jazz and other musical trends have expanded; and Bourbon Street is now an exceedingly tawdry tourist trap but still has a few good joints.
When my friend suggested a “women at 70” visit to the city weeks before my birthday, I was ready to explore the vibrant new city of New Orleans. Five days was enough to dent the wallet, learn that the city is great at any age, experience some of what remains and what is new, and to list what we might do on a future trip.
Here are some of the things I learned:
The locations of the official, staffed New Orleans Visitor Information offices are one of the city’s best-kept secrets. We were on day four of our visit before, by accident, we happened upon Basin Street Station adjacent to St. Louis Cemetery No 1. This charming rehabbed, privately owned building was the old headquarters of the Southern Railroad and includes interesting exhibits about the railroads as well as information about jazz in New Orleans neighborhoods, and more.
While there are plenty of tourist information offices to be found, they are actually sales locations for the many tours and do not have the New Orleans Official Visitors Guide. This comprehensive free book, updated annually, includes maps; discount coupons and information about almost everything you can think of. The book can be ordered on line, but the physical locations of the visitor centers are almost impossible to locate on line. I could only find 501 Basin Street by typing in this address, and I only assume that the other official visitor locations, 2020 St. Charles Avenue, and 529 St. Ann Street, are also staffed. Another useful book we picked up at Basin Street is Louisiana, Official Inspiration Guide. This brochure was subtitled A Culinary Celebration, but also included comprehensive information about all areas of the state.
The National Park Service visitor bureaus are much easier to locate, electronically and geographically, and should definitely be visited. Jean Lafitte’s French Quarter Visitor Center, located at 419 Decatur Street, is an easy walk from Canal Street, on a street you will probably explore anyway. It is open from Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and provides exhibits about “the history and traditions of the city and lower Mississippi River basin.” There are also brochures about the other national parks nearby. While there, I purchased a very instructive book, A Young Person’s Guide to New Orleans Houses, by Lloyd Vogt, and studied it extensively as I viewed local architecture.
The New Orleans Jazz National Heritage Park, located at 916 N. Peters Street, in the French Market, is another great free resource. As we approached, we encountered a volunteer starting a free tour about jazz in the French Quarter. A drummer himself, he was very knowledgeable and even carried a small speaker so he could play historic jazz passages as part of the tour. It ended at the Old U.S. Mint where the Park Service hosts live educational performances. A visit to the National Park Service, New Orleans, web page prior to your trip is a good use of your time.
There are endless services and tours you can purchase. We learned through experience to think carefully and ask the right questions in planning our tours. One question I would ask in the future is “What is the experience of the guide for this tour?” We reserved our Grey Line Super City Tour tickets in advance on line. Whether the guide was new or a substitute, he was dreary and uninformed. At the stop in City Park, I asked him if he could talk a bit about New Orleans architecture, and he looked panic stricken. Our $43 tickets were not a total waste. We did get a few bits of new information, a tour around parts of the city we would otherwise have missed, such as the magnificent City Park, and a haven from the pounding rain.
Our other on-line ticket purchase provided another lesson. Eileen had purchased tickets on line for the hop on hop off bus tour, thinking this would be an efficient way to travel and to see parts of the city. We realized we were not going to use them and were told that the only place we could get our money back was at 501 Basin Street (mentioned above!). Without realizing it, she had purchased them through a vendor, so the process to return them became very complex. (She did eventually receive a reimbursement.) We had a similar experience in booking our hotel, so we have learned to be extremely careful to assure we are buying directly from the service provider.
In planning our trip, we also decided to use public transportation as much as possible. Most tourists learn about and ride the trolleys. Maps of the trolley and bus lines are only available in the vehicle or on the web, so I would encourage travelers to print information out in advance—there are no readily available printed transit maps for the city in its entirety.
While I am positive that most lines have more than five stops, only major intersections are noted on the maps of the lines, so this makes planning travel more complicated. We ended up having one very long, very hot walk because the trolley driver let us off one stop too soon. There is a useful resource at the stops however. Posted information is provided so you can call or text to learn when the next vehicle is due to arrive.
It was a slow tourist week in New Orleans, and we found it easy to flag a taxi in the central tourist areas, but hard to call a taxi to our neighborhood. We were not able to get the UBER app, so I would be sure to set this up in advance were I to go to New Orleans again.
We were fortunate to have extensive lists of restaurants provided by locals, so we were off to a good start. Reflecting back, I understand that for the splurge meals, it is not enough to know the name and check the menu on line. You also need to get a sense of the atmosphere in the restaurants. Last year, I ate at Peche, one of the current rave restaurants in New Orleans, but it was so loud we could not hear each other. Dante’s Kitchen by contrast, was perfect for superb food in a gracious setting. You can always call and say you are hard of hearing and would it be a problem for you in their restaurant!
For this trip, our Commander’s Palace lunch reservation was made before we left home. Our splurge meals were at three very different prestigious locations, each with a very distinctive personality.Commander’s Palace was by far the most formal, waiters clearly trained to set a table with all the precision described in Downton Abbey. Dark carpets and woodwork, crystal chandeliers, waiters who placed one’s napkin in one’s lap and who glided quietly about the dining room waiting for you to call them over. It is a place where locals go to celebrate occasions, and there were many tables with balloons and a guest of honor wearing a paper crown/hat. The food was excellent and presented with flair— stirring the sherry into the turtle soup at the table; breaking the meringue on the bread pudding and adding hard sauce. The French bread had a delicate interior with the perfect crust, an example of the care that goes into the cooking in this globally acknowledged restaurant.
A side benefit of eating at Commander’s was receiving their complimentary brochure providing a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District and we followed it on a sunny day. It did not include The Rink, a small shopping plaza very near Commander’s with a fantastic independent bookstore that was browse-worthy.
Cochon, our next splurge meal, was in the warehouse district, with blonde wood tables, chairs, and benches, an open kitchen at the back, and a noisy but cheerful vibe. The bench tables were far enough apart to provide some privacy, but close enough together to allow for cheerful discussion with our neighbors about their food selections, where else they had eaten, and why they were in New Orleans. When Eileen spoke with her Italian hands and knocked over her martini, it was swiftly cleaned up and replaced immediately (and at no charge.) My most memorable savory dish of the trip was wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter. The warm, soft rolls were perfect for soaking up every bit of this sauce. The smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle were tasty and lean. The service relaxed but very attentive. I would eat here any time!
Our last night, we taxied out to La Petite Grocery for yet another memorable meal, graciously served with the right touch of warmth, in a converted old grocery store with a tin roof, white tablecloths, mirrored walls and the feel of perhaps a great French bistro. This was Eileen’s favorite meal of the trip and the dessert was the most memorable I’ve ever tasted, with a delicious disc of chocolate torte topped with chicory ice cream.
In addition to experiencing these highly acclaimed restaurants with radically differing personalities, we also spent a rainy afternoon at Pere Antoine, sitting next to the large open windows, watching the water cascade, and chatting with the waitress who pulled up a chair on this slow day. When it comes to food that is as good as my memories, the gumbo was impeccably spiced and matched my expectations of the perfect bowl.
As we chatted with our waitress, I commented that they served the “wrong” type of po-boy’s, with romaine lettuce and a roll instead of French bread. She agreed, but explained that this is what many tourists preferred. One could still get a tasty traditional po-boy with shredded iceberg, a slather of mayonnaise, pickles, tomatoes and fried seafood or gravied roast beef at Johnny’s. This order-at-the-counter restaurant looked a mite seedy but had a SRO crowd. Our final meal before departure was at Felix’s where the oyster po-boy was exactly as I wanted it. Felix’s is a classic New Orleans seafood bar, with a long marble bar and fresh oysters shucked as you eat them. The hot syrup-soaked bread pudding was proudly served right from the oven by the chef himself!
We also had great breakfasts of eggs, grits and even the perfect biscuit for under $10.00, relaxed dinners on Frenchman Street, and even a Hebrew National Hotdog outside the Aquarium. Our first night was at Joey K’s on Magazine Street, one of the many excellent neighborhood restaurants that I would visit regularly if I lived nearby.
There are many restaurants for tourists that may or may not have good food. When we were looking for raw oysters we were taxied to a French Quarter restaurant that served six oysters for $20, as well as Dugness crab and lobster. (Why eat these when the local seafood is so good?) We left immediately. Instead, we went to The Bayou on Bourbon Street, where the retracted doors open to the street view, and the oysters are plump and reasonably priced. We also had great hamburgers at Snug Harbor before going to hear jazz and good gumbo with crabmeat in the shell (and very loud music) next door at The Marigny Brasserie on Frenchman Street.
Not a bad meal on this trip!
Listening to jazz is certainly one of the highlights of any trip to New Orleans. I will not evaluate the quality of the jazz played at the airport, by the street bands, or in some of the bars since my ear is not discerning, but I can confirm that Frenchman Street is definitely not to be missed. We had two nights of sitting comfortably at Snug Harbor first mesmerized by the Jonas Stewart Quartet and, the next night the Ellis Marsalis Quartet (including Jonas Stewart and Jonas Marsalis). We also wandered in to the Spotted Cat to join the sweaty crowds standing and enjoying the music, meandered through the Arts Market and down the street listening to music flowing out of other doors, and joined the dancing to the brass band music played on a street corner by a large group of young teenage boys.
The New Orleans Official Visitors Guide includes a list of many locations for live music. It also makes sense to check out special events during your visit. These can be found in the many free magazines, including Off Beat. Next time, I would hope to go to the Maple Leaf Bar and return to Maison Bourbon, where I took my two sons, age 12 and eight, to hear live jazz and taught them that, in a bar, you sip your Coke, not gulp it!
PLACES TO VISIT AND TOUR
There were so many museums and other activities we wanted to experience—-the free and self-guided tours, Magazine Street by day (but also a pleasant evening stroll), World War II museum, City Park Sculpture Garden, Mardi Gras World, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, the lower ninth ward, the Presbytere, Cabildo and more art galleries and antique shops on Royal Street— if time and foot weariness didn’t intervene. We spent a lot of time at the places we did visit and enjoyed a quality experience at each.
On one very rainy day we visited the Osborne Museum of Art and enjoyed it so much that we returned after our lunch at Commander’s to finish our tour of the exhibitions. These include southern art from the colonial period to the present. Favorites were the modern artists and ceramics.
On a breezy, sunny day, we popped in to the Aquarium for what we expected to be a brief visit, but stayed for four entrancing hours. Eileen loved the parakeets and my favorite was the seahorses, including the tank of very pregnant males. We fed the sting rays, watched the penguins swim and eat fish, saw a poisonous frog that looked more like a black and yellow lacquered ornament than a living creature, and enjoyed the visual beauty provided by fish in tanks and in the glass tunnel under the main tank.
Next door to the Aquarium is the ferry to Algiers. We spontaneously took the brief ride over and back on a beautiful day when we were tired of walking. Seeing St. Louis Cathedral and the waterfront from this special perspective was well worth our fare of $1.00, exact change (senior citizens are half price.)
Woldenerg Park, a promenade starting at the Aquarium, was another highlight. It replaced old wharves and warehouses right next to the Mississippi and has lots of grass and benches, beautiful sculptures and a river view of New Orleans and Algiers. The Holocaust Memorial entranced us for about 30 minutes, with its nine panels of stained glass that meld to form distinct images as you slowly walk around. Nearby, a white Carrera marble monument, funded by local Italians, combines a sculpture of Miss Liberty and an immigrant family.
Visiting New Orleans, we saw tourists of all ages, shapes and sizes and clearly of varying interests and incomes. Had there been a major convention or tourist event in town, our experience would certainly have been impacted. To fully enjoy a trip to this city where there is so much to see, do, and eat, take some time to plan in advance, make reservations at those restaurants you do not want to miss, and send away for tourist information well in advance. Remember that what is inexpensive or free does not bring money into the city and receives less publicity, but a well-planned visit will save you money and help you focus your time on those aspects of the city that interest you most.
Top photo: Bigstock