Keith Glover: Jazzland
Jazz and theater share a love-hate relation-ship. For every critical and commercial success, such as August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Warren Leight’s Side Man, there are numerous jazz plays that are just plain bad.
Playwright Keith Glover was acutely aware of this not-so-sparkling history when he wrote Jazzland, which attempts to capture the unique ways jazz musicians work out their art. “I always loved the feeling that was around the players—the interactions and drama of working out arrangements and being a member of the band,” says Glover. “I never saw that onstage fully. Plus, I wanted to draw on previous works combining jazz, poetry and drama.”
Jazzland premiered this past summer at the prestigious Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.V. Set mostly in the eponymous nightclub, the play is filled with plenty of hip jazz references as well as familial conflict worthy of an Arthur Miller drama. The play’s timeline spans the 1950s to the present day, as the trumpet-playing son of a jazz saxophonist (Ram Gehrig) wrestles with his father’s legacy as a parent and a musician.
The plot twist is that the father was shot and killed by his wife in a nightclub called Jazzland and that the son is later critically injured in a car crash. Like an episode of Six Feet Under, the dead father converses with the comatose son about issues personal and professional. We learn that the father, after a respectable career in mainstream jazz, split off from the music and his close friend, a trumpeter named Twist, by joining a famous rock-fusion band in the ’60s. Gehrig subsequently loses his creative muse after a bad acid trip and his agitated state gives his wife apparent cause to murder him. Eventually the son comes to grips with his father’s death and his own recovery.
For a jazz fan, the story may evoke associations with real-life jazzers such as Lee Morgan or even the Marsalis brothers, but the inspiration for Glover was a much more unlikely source. “I was originally inspired by an album I saw [that featured] Chris Botti and Chet Baker [the 1996 film soundtrack Playing by Heart]. I wondered if Chris was ever overwhelmed by feeling the duty to fill those very large shoes whenever he played. And what if the relationship was even closer, like father to son? That was interesting to explore.”
In the premiere production, father and son Gehrig are played by white actors. According to Glover, this bit of casting was entirely intentional. “Truthfully, the opportunities that Ram Gehrig has open to him as a white man in the industry aren’t readily available to an artist of color at that time—or now or anytime soon. Color still matters, especially in the realm of commerce. So it fit to make them white to tell the story specifically in this way.” But Glover adds, “Jazzland isn’t about race; it’s about jazz. The best play about race and jazz is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It says everything better than I could ever hope to.”
Glover is no neophyte to theater. He has appeared in many notable plays as an actor, including the original production of Wilson’s Fences. And he has written several plays, including the blues-oriented Thunder Knocking on the Door and the Pulitzer-nominated In Walks Ed. A passionate jazz fan, Glover is also an accomplished guitar player and son of one of the only African-American luthiers, Woody Phifer (phiferdesigns.com).
Getting Jazzland’s music and story right was critically important to Glover. “You got to have the sound. When it’s cooking, jazz is the most exciting sound there is. I hope that the marriage of words with the true sound of jazz, in a vocalese style, combined with a dramatic story would take us into new territory. I was very interested in the art of improvisation filtering through the actors to keep things fresh during performances and to give us the essence of jazz improvisation.”
Other than a little tinkling on the piano, the actors didn’t play any instruments in the Contemporary American Theater Festival production of Jazzland. Glover hopes to change that in future productions and considers the play a work in progress. “Hopefully, I’ll get another chance to apply what has been learned and revise the piece with that information. I would also love the opportunity to have a live jazz band participate in rehearsal and carry that through to performance with the actors, which I did previously with Bobby Watson handling orchestrations when I directed the Sammy Davis musical Golden Boy. Then I think you’ll really see something amazing.”