The inspiration for Kurt Elling’s radio play The Big Blind—co-written with Phil Galdston and premiering at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York on Mar. 1 and 2—came from a very special place: the Green Mill, a longtime jazz club outside Chicago that has a rich and colorful past filled with mobsters, musicians, comedians, and violence. However, Elling’s connection to the club, at least initially, had more to do with personal experience than history.
“When I first moved back to Chicago [from Minnesota, where he studied at Gustavus Adolphus College],” he explains, “it was the first place I ever sat in, it was the first place I ever heard any number of extraordinary Chicago players, and it was a place where I could, as consistently as one was able to, hear Mark Murphy. I’m so grateful to have been granted my heart’s desire.” The Green Mill became a home base for Elling, who would go from being a local up-and-comer there to an artist signed to Blue Note and eventually one of the pre-eminent male jazz vocalists of our era.
Over time Elling never lost his affinity for the venue, in part because of his relationship with the owner Dave Jemilo, who supported Elling through thick and thin and also introduced him to the rich history of the club. “A big part of the heritage of the Green Mill has to do with its cultural role during Prohibition, the years when Mafia hoods controlled everything,” he says. “It’s so much a part of the fabric and the identity of what the Green Mill is.”
It was the truly incredible story of Joe E. Lewis, whose photo hangs behind the bar at the Green Mill, that captured Elling’s imagination. Back in the ’20s, Lewis was an up-and-coming singer, and a bit of a comedian too. “He’s making a name for himself in that room, as a singer on that stage, and he gets an offer from the rival Mafia group to play another club seven blocks north, and he naively thought that he could play the other side of the street,” Elling explains. “They [Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit] warned him and he took the gig anyway. They let him open, and five or six weeks into his run, they sent four or five guys to send a message.” Among them was a young Sam Giancana, who would go on to later fame as the high-level mobster with ties to the CIA, Castro, and Kennedy in the ’50s and ’60s. Back then, the fledging tough guy and his pals delivered the message to Lewis by knifing him and cutting his throat, leaving him to bleed out.
Somehow Lewis survived, albeit without a credible singing voice, and he became one of the comedians of that era who made their living in large part by pretending to be drunk and telling related jokes. Ironically, in later years Lewis was embraced by Sinatra, a guy with alleged mob ties of his own. Elling says the turnabout is not as surprising as you might think. “Sinatra specifically looked up to Joe E. Lewis as a father figure of a sort, a) because he stood up to the mob, and b) because he didn’t ever rat on anybody. Sinatra also loved Lewis because Sinatra had facial scars too.” Though Sinatra’s came from metal forceps at birth, not from a mob hit. Lewis would end up writing many of the jokes for the Rat Pack.
For the last 10 to 15 years, Elling has regularly told Lewis’ story to many people in “Can you believe this?” fashion. Some years back, as he was getting his makeup done for a photo shoot and recounting the tale yet again, the makeup woman said, “Oh, his widow is my grandmother.” She proceeded to get her grandmother on the phone for Elling, who learned from Lewis’ widow that after the attack, Al Capone sent over $30,000 because he loved Joey’s singing. “Capone felt guilty because he didn’t know they were going to do this number on him,” Elling says. “It was Machine Gun Jack McGurn going out on his own, going rogue, not realizing how much Capone liked the guy. They got a little out of control.” That sum of thirty grand was no small amount back in the ’20s; Google’s inflation calculator estimates it at about $440,000 today. But Lewis turned it down. Elling adds, laughing, “That’s enough to get a man divorced!” Instead Lewis doggedly took his own path as a journeyman comedian with no strings attached. More important for this story, Elling was now truly hooked on the narrative.
Elling wasn’t the only singer captivated by Lewis’ tragic saga. The Chairman of the Board himself was moved in 1957 to fund a movie based on Art Cohn’s book about the tale, The Joker Is Wild. The Paramount film of the same name starred Sinatra himself in the role of the nightclub singer who had his throat slit and his career nearly destroyed, yet persevered to become, yes, a journeyman comedian. Ol’ Blue Eyes hired Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to write the music, and among the songs they came up with was the Oscar-winning “All the Way,” which became a standard in the Sinatra songbook.
Nonetheless, whatever common interest Elling shared with Sinatra, he did not want to remake The Joker Is Wild. Rather, he preferred to tell a different story inspired by Lewis and the Green Mill. “What happens to a person who’s been given an artistic gift and has the temperament, but the avenue of expression is obliterated?” Elling asks. “Now that’s a trope. What do you do? You’re the piano player and your hand gets blown off, or you’re the trumpet guy and you lose your chops. You’re the singer and you can’t sing anymore. What is it that keeps you alive? And what is the story with that?”
Thus Elling’s own story, with himself in the starring role, began. “I move it to 1957, when jazz is at its zenith in a lot of ways, when you can still have a bunch of hits and become a big star on the hit parade with swinging music. The Beatles haven’t hit yet, but Elvis is there. You can still do it. So it’s plausible that there’s somebody who would sing the kind of music that I want to sing, and have enough at stake professionally, creatively.” He wrote draft after draft, even did a table read or two. He got support from trumpeter and arranger Guy Barker in London, who told Elling that he was all in to help in whatever way he could. “I knew that [the arrangements] would be taken care of because the stuff that he [Barker] writes is completely informed by that era and those orchestrators and the movies of that era,” explains Elling. Barker eventually wrote arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra.
Still, it was all just a work in progress, or even better, a work in the head, until Elling talked with his manager Bryan Farina, who took the idea and ran with it, setting up a premiere at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Elling, a NYC resident, was originally thinking more along the lines of a small black-box theater in the Village. But no, it’s lined up for the big room now and he has to do it. And there ain’t nothing like a deadline to make things happen. (Hell, I wouldn’t have written this piece without one.)
A fan of Wynton Marsalis’ jazz opera Blood on the Fields, Elling was keenly aware of the gravitas surrounding a big work at the House of Swing. He decided to take a different tack. “I’m going to have fun, I’ve got to do my own thing,” he explains. “First, I’ve got to figure out: How am I going to do this in a way that is a concert? Because I’m not going to have the budget for anything. It’s got to be a concert with a plot. How am I going to do that? Now I need the right additional teammates. And I try to figure out who it’s going to be, and how it’s going to go.”
Elling decided to put on The Big Blind as a radio play rather than as an opera or musical. “I figured, ‘Let’s make it a radio play because then it’s four or five people, with a script and very minimal visuals, and that’s a bit we can work.’” He even decided to bring in a Foley (sound effects) artist. Turns out Elling has been a lifelong fan of old-time radio.
Knowing that he’d build around himself as the singer “Jack Lewis,” Elling started working on secondary characters. “I’ve always loved Dee Dee Bridgewater, and we’ve had such a sweet tooth for each other all these years, since the very first time we met when she was interviewing me for BET. We have such a good time on stage together, and I’m like [he snaps his fingers], ‘I’m going to write a part for her.’” Bang, he has his femme fatale. Wait, was there a femme fatale in this story already? “Well, there is now!” Elling says, laughing.
And if you’re going to have a femme fatale, then you’ve got to have what Elling calls a “Polly Pureheart” character. For the sweet girl with a sweet voice, he turned to Allison Semmes, a gifted singer who played Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical. Next he wanted a narrator in the classic radio-theater tradition. Initially he’d zeroed in on the acclaimed actor Clarke Peters, known for his roles on David Simon’s The Wire and Treme, but Peters ended up with a scheduling conflict. Instead the singular Ben Vereen stepped in to guide the story as the older and wizened saxophone mentor to Elling’s Lewis-inspired lead character. We won’t bother running down Mr. Vereen’s résumé.
There’s more to this team than the performers on stage. Elling also realized that he needed help with the songwriting and turned to Phil Galdston, a songwriter who’s written hits for Vanessa Williams and other pop stars, but who also has collaborated with Elling on some of his non-vocalese songs. Like many a jazzer, Elling finds it difficult to write with fewer words. Galdston, Elling says, is “a guy who’s got to make it work with a really minimal amount of notes, and it’s got to be logical and tell the story extra clear.”
With his deadline looming, Elling realized that he needed a director to make his project work. He reached out to his old friend Terry Kinney, founding member of Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theater. “He and I have written some stuff together, and we’ve got a good working relationship, and that’s fantastic,” says Elling. Onward and upward they go.
Ultimately the team has produced a story that summons up the rich history of a place that formed Elling as an artist. In The Big Blind, he acknowledges his Green Mill roots by evoking what he calls “so many spiritual bullet holes in the wall.”
Learn more about the Green Mill nightclub here.
Top photo: Kurt Elling by Anna Webber (courtesy of Sony Music)