A veteran jazz musician and Broadway pit player, trombonist Gregory Charles Royal got the initial inspiration for “It’s a Hardbop Life,” while performing as one of the backing musicians in the Broadway production of “Five Guys Named Moe.” He thought to himself, “Damn, if they can do it, why can’t I?” And a jazz musical, written and performed by musicians, was born. The latest incarnation of “It’s a Hardbop Life” will be staged at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint in Washington, DC on Friday, June 4 and Saturday, June 5. Performing with Royal in “It’s a Hardbop Life” are Ken Crutchfield (drums), Clarence Seay (bass) and Rachel Cora Wood. The production is presented by American Youth Symphony, an organization dedicated to getting kids into instrumental music.
The plot of the play clearly reveals Royal’s intentions for its impact. “It’s a story of a young rapper who through a fantasy or dream is taken back to 1964 and the life of his father,” explains Royal. “His father’s band is getting ready for a performance at this fictitious club called the Jazz Corner. The lesson he’s learning is that instrumental music itself is important. It’s a sort of fable.” Fable it may be, but of course other than the time travel bit the storyline is not so fantastic given how many rappers have familial roots in jazz. Royal acknowledges that fact, but argues that it’s all about perception. “The problem is that they’re not in the mainstream, so that if you go into schools or whatever, the average kid doesn’t know about these rappers who are really into the craft,” he says. “And that’s the problem.”
For Royal, like many a middle-aged musician or even father, the solution is simple. It’s the music, stupid. And that meant playing the music on stage. “What separates this play from other productions is not the writing, but just the mere fact that we are actually playing the music,” he says. “I remember seeing ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and thinking, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if that trombone player or trumpet player was actually playing.’ That’s really the selling point.”
As far as the style of the music, Royal knew from his own experience as a jazz sideman what would work with audiences of all generations. Initially the production was basically the Art Blakey songbook, but in time Royal broadened the music a little. “We added songs in that style. We do ‘Moanin’ and an arrangement of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ done in the Blakey style. The common denominator with that music is the backbeat. That seems to be a theme that goes through every generation. So if the horns are on top [sings jazz line] with that beat they’re going to relate. That music speaks to you.”
But there’s more to music in the presentation, so when he first presented the show, he ran into a little trouble when he failed to clarify the theatrics with this venue. “When I first did it in New York City at Birdland, we were using straight up Art Blakey’s music. But the clubowner came in and said, ‘What the $%& is going on here?’ He sees people shooting each other. See I didn’t tell him all about the play. So there are actresses in the audience playing waitresses talking back to the band. And there’s a shooting like with Lee Morgan. Oh, man.” Interestingly, that was a theme in another jazz play, “Jazzland,” written by Keith Glover, a protégé of August Wilson. It seems that Lee Morgan’s tragic death by the hand of a jealous woman has become like a Greek myth for jazz theater people.
“It’s a Hardbop Life” played at the Producers Club in 2004 at the JVC Jazz Festival. Since then they’ve made some changes to the show. “We’re back in the mix with it now,” he confirms. “We’re making a lot of changes and making it more succinct.” However, Royal is the first to admit that he’s a musician first and dramatist second. “The problem is, honestly, I’m not a professional playwright, so I’m taking a lot of advice and lessons on how to tighten things up. Eventually, we are going to bring it back to New York. That’s our ultimate goal.” But Royal is not limiting the production to theaters. “We also want to bring it to jazz venues,” he adds. “We’re very nimble and fast. If you can hire a band, we can put on the play.”
But a theater production has to start in the theater and it helped that Royal and his compatriots had lots of experience in jazz and soul musical productions. Royal confessed that he learned plenty from that experience. “I remember doing Five Guys and we were onstage with that, so we felt that we were part of the show and not in the pit. We thought it was cool, but Frank Rich in The New York Times slammed it and said that it was the worst piece of %$ ever. The next night we were thinking, ‘OK, we know the show is closing.’ And then Cameron Mackintosh [producer] came out and said, ‘We’re keeping it open.’ It was like a disconnect between the quality of the show and whether or not it’s on Broadway.”
But there was an even bigger lesson about how music and theater could work together. “From a creative standpoint, I learned something different. As an artist being onstage was such a big difference for me from doing a show like ‘Anything Goes’ or one of those traditional shows where you don’t really feel that give and take with the audience. It just opened up creative juices for me. So when I played with the Ellington band and we’d be on tour and we started putting theatrics into the show. Sometimes when you’re a musician and you’re connecting, it’s almost like a sense, like hearing or smell, that might be missing, if you could just add the extra experience of the verbal with the audience. Even if it wasn’t the scripted play, that you have some sort of dialogue that accompanies the music as well.”
From the title, you might conclude that the play is all hard-luck stories about being a jazz musician, but Royal says that it’s not really the message here. “Okay, the main character’s father does get shot. But, the real story is that these musicians, in the same way that musicians or older people now say, ‘I hate that rap music,’ they hate cocktail singers. That’s the antithesis of music for them. They’re playing serious jazz stuff and one of the plots is the main character’s girlfriend is a cocktail singer who doesn’t get it and she’s constantly trying to sit in with the band. One thing leads to another.”
But Royal doesn’t see the play as a downer at all. “The play is fun,” he says. “It has its serious moments.” The stories told in the play do come from the real life of musicians. “We also talk about our normal experiences on the road, some of the pranks that we did on the road. Those sorts of bad boy stories.” Royal goes on to tell of this bit called “Rocky’s Room,” and all I will say is that if you’re in a hotel and some guy calls your room and asks if it’s Rocky’s room, hang up. Quickly.
Royal is very clear about the target audience for the production. In fact, he’s aiming for three separate, but equally important, audiences. “The first target is the senior who has lived through that time and they can relate. Then there are musicians that relate directly to the situation and stories. I remember Andrew White [DC-based saxophonist and former road bassist] coming to a show and hearing him laughing in the back. They relate to it on a very personal level. And then there are the kids. And they are our most important targets. Because they haven’t been exposed too much to instrumental performance. When they think of jazz, they think of some cornball in a club. Or they think of classical music, some cornball playing flute at band camp. But they never relate to someone playing the horn in a serious way that they think, ‘Man, he sounds real, he sounds strong.’ It transcends race and all that kind of thing. It’s a matter of sounding serious on the instrument in their mind, so it’s like the same level as hip hop. That’s a very important target for us, for the kids to make that correlation between the rapper in the show and real music how it had been played years ago in a way that doesn’t turn them off.”
For more information about the production and Royal’s efforts to encourage youth to embrace instrumental music, you can go to the American Youth Symphony web site.