Sep 26, 2019
Jazz and theatre as art forms have not intersected that often. One thinks of The Connection, a play form the 1950’s featuring music from Freddie Redd and performances onstage by Redd and a young Jackie McLean as one outstanding exception. More recently, Sideman and Blue Paradise dealt with jazz and musicians, but without original music.
In his new play (A)loft Modulation, playwright Jaymes Jorsling brings to life 821 Sixth Avenue as it was during the 1950s and ’60s: a dilapidated five-floor walk-up in Manhattan’s seedy flower district that was an after-hours haunt of musicians, artists, junkies, and prostitutes. The world premiere Off-Broadway is in previews now, and opens on September 26. The dramatic production will feature a live jazz band led by saxophonist Jonathan Beshay, improvising nightly. Directed by award-winner Christopher McElroen, the play also features composed jazz piano by Gerald Clayton.
The subject matter of (A)loft Modulation is fascinating. In 1955 W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer, quit his job at Life magazine, and left his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. In search of greater freedom and artistic license, he moved into a dilapidated loft building in Manhattan's flower district - at the time a seedy, unsavory neighborhood. Smith's neighbor was Hall Overton, a teacher of classical theory and composition at The Julliard School of Music. Their adjoining lofts were the late night haunts of some of the biggest names in jazz (Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk) painting (Salvador Dali, David X. Young), and of countless other fascinating characters.
Smith turned his documentary impulses toward his chaotic surroundings, making 40,000 pictures of life in the loft between 1957-1965. He also wired the entire building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 4,500 hours of audio tape, capturing anyone and everyone who wandered through.
For thirteen years Sam Stephenson - writer, instructor and director of the Jazz Loft Project at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies - researched Smith's life. This resulted in over 5,000 discs of material from the loft and culminated in a book, The Jazz Loft Project, and NPR radio series, and a traveling exhibition which opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2010.
Jaymes Jorsling has taken the story to the next level. In 2015 he was commissioned by Duke University to write the script for Gerald Clayton's sprawling oeuvre Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation (the piece is now touring internationally). There he met and worked with Stephenson, and from there, his creative process took the story to the stage. He has workshopped his writings with Classical Theatre of Harlem, LAByrinth Theatre Company, HIP-HOP Theater Festival, New Federal, Inneract Productions, etc. He is a 4x finalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights' Conference, and was a fellow there in 2010. He has been a finalist for the LARK's Playwrights Week and was nominated for their prestigious PONY award. As an Artist-in-Residence at Brown University, he worked on his play trilogy "...Insufficient Funds..." named from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” Speech. (The trilogy addresses where America is headed, unless fairness and freedom become as inalienable as they are obliged to be).
Podcast 701 is my conversation with Jaymes, a huge jazz fan, and an astute judge of racial politics and the ability of art to build bridges between oft-divided societies. We discussed the genesis of (A)loft Modulation, and his hopes for the production, as well as his views on art, music and how he hopes his art can help America heal its wounds of racism and distrust.
(A)loft Modulation is presented by the american vicarious. Performances will begin September 26 in the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres for a run scheduled through October 27.
For tickets and more information visit theamericanvicarious.org.