Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The play, inspired partly by Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, is set in New York City. It is 1958 in Manhattan at the infamous Birdland jazz club, known to attract writers, beats, musicians and artists of all walks of life. A woman unusually solo, becomes enraptured with a stranger-a jazz musician. Already in a mood for the unreal, slowly her interest in his mystery and desire for something amazing to wake up her sleepy world causes her to be seduced by the trumpeter in a dreamlike exchange between a jazz musician and his fan become almost erotic.
ELLA: A twenty-something raven haired, fair skinned, classic beauty has been left in Manhattan alone when her fiancé goes to D.C. to work on a political campaign. Feeling curious and enticed by the scene and music, she has stayed at the Birdland to hear an amateur trumpeter play a set. She unknowingly becomes bewitched by him.
THE TRUMPETER: A beatnik musician. He is handsome and alluring with unique features and stylish with his jazzman's dress and demeanor. He is silent but for his playing in the piece.
FRANCIS: Ella's fiancé, mentioned, but not in the scene.
LATE HOURS AT THE INFAMOUS BIRDLAND CLUB- WE SEE THE INTERIOR OF BIRDLAND, A GRAND NIGHT CLUB WITH BIRDCAGES AND ELABORATE FURNISHINGS, VIRTUALLY EMPTY. A FEW PEOPLE LINGER BUT THE SPOTLITE LEAVES THEM IN THE DARK AS IF ONLY ELLA REMAINS. ELLA IS SEATED AT A SMALL TABLE AT THE CLUB, IT FACES THE GRAND BIRDLAND JAZZ STAGE WHICH IS MADE TO BE A MOCK STAGE ON A STAGE, ELEVATED BY SEVERAL FEET AND PLACED BACK STAGE LEFT DURRING THIS SCENE. IT IS HERE THE TRUMPETER WILL ENTER WHEN HE BEGINS TO PLAY. FOR NOW HE REMAINS ALSO OUTSIDE THE SPOTLITES.
[Ella begins to speak. She gets out of her chair and faces the audience]
It was a cold night, a night like any other. The hour was mad for someone like me, way past the usual hour for even the most self proclaimed fashionable quartets, duos and solos. [SHE PAUSES] The headlining band had long since played their last set, and the club had this sleepy familiar air about it-like early morning hours in a bohemian Parisian opium den…. it was intimate, cool, like a dirty catholic school girl who was not ashamed about it. Perhaps it was the looks of the place, that bedroom intimacy, it created an environment for an intensity of feelings to suddenly poor through me… first hot, and then cold, which married itself with a rhythm of both the rapid and painfully slow. [SHE SITS DOWN AT HER SMALL TABLE THAT FACES THE BIRDLAND STAGE, WHICH IS HIGHER UP, AND PLACED BACK STAGE LEFT DURRING THIS SCENE].
It had been a while since Francis had left for the campaign in Washington, trading in the glorious New York City world of the engaged and beloved in which we shared for a intense and riled up room full of boys yelling poll numbers and answering phones, talking about the future of America. He had traded our world for the campaign trail, and whatever wild lustful thrills it possessed in contrast. I-decidedly bored after the initial few weeks had found myself wondering around places like Washington Square Park, or the MET, gazing at essentially nothing and feeling bound to nothing, not even him anymore. It was something of a shock to come to Birdland without him, different from the very beat of every note that passed through the smooth hum of the sax into my very open ears. It was this man; or boy, a gentleman of an age where either word could be used and neither was quite fitting, well, it was him that had caused this strange longing and awakening in me that night. He had taken me aback in such an odd way. He wasn't playing all night, it was that witching hour-almost dawn-most of the seats empty and the stage as well, it was then that he began to slowly walk to the stage in a shroud of mysterious vigilance, and he began to play. He was beautiful in a distinctive way [THE TRUMPETER ENTERS INTO THE SPOTLIGHT AND WALKS ONTO THE BIRDLAND STAGE. ELLA PAUSES AND TURNS UP TOWARDS THE TRUMPETER, HER BACK MOSTLY FACING THE AUDIENCE] He was young, smart looking, slightly virginal, and a wide-eyed hipster of the Manhattan brand. There was nothing outstanding about his particular brand of jazz in his dress or person. He was not a Dizz-type or a Thelonious Monk…
[SHE FACES THE AUDIENCE AND THERE IS A DRAMATIC PAUSE]
He put his tongue and lips on the tip of his trumpet.
[THE MUSICIAN SUDDUCTIVELY BEGINS TO PUT HIS MOUTH ON HIS TRUMPET, HIS EYES SEEM TO STARE DISTINCIVELY AT BOTH ELLA AND HIS TRUMPET]
Inside I began to tremble and shiver slightly at the sight of him, as he carefully and longingly danced his cold fingertips along his trumpet, silver in the light of the stage, his lips and tongue following gracefully in a beautiful and meticulous waltz which turned wild and staccato and sighed deeply with a haunting rhythm.
[THE MUSICIAN BEGINS PLAYING, NOT LOUDLY AS IF TO DROWN OUT THE NARRARATOR, BUT AS IF TO DEMONSTRATE THE SCENE IN WHICH SHE IS DISCRIBING. THE NARRARATOR LOOKS UP AT HIM, TOUCHES THE BACK OF HER NECK GRACEFULLY WITH HER HAND AND DIPS HER HEAD BACK, AS IF TO SOAK IN THE PLEASURE OF THE SIGHT. ELLA BEGINS TO SPEAK AT A MORE RAPID TEMPO, AS IF SINGING HERSELF, THE TECNIQUE REACHES ITS PEAK AT THE END WITH A DEEP SIGH]
He utilized all the provocative tools in a trumpeter's repertoire to slowly seduce me. The Flutter tonguing, rolling the tip of his tongue ever so slightly to produced a 'growling' tone. Then another, the double tongue technique, he tongued so lightly that the articulation was almost indistinguishable. Finally, he pressed his lips down hard, soft and everywhere in between, this is called the Glissando, sliding the notes.
[ELLA LOOKS UP AT THE CEILING AS IF STARRING AT THE HEVENS, SHE SUDDUCTIVELY GETS UP FROM HER SEAT, PUTS HER HAND ON HER HIP AND BEGINS A ROCKING MOTION WITH HER HIPS, AS IF SHE IS DIGGING THE MUSIC AND KEEPING TIME, SHE TURNS PARTWAY TO THE TRUMPETER AND PARTWAY TO THE AUDIENCE, HER ADULATION OF HIM KNOWN].
His mouth, tongue and hands so exquisitely skilled creates the music, that mad hot ballroom rhythm, through his instrument, handled by him as if the sole recipient of a handling only comparable to that given to the most sublime of female lovers…it sighs, moans and howls in pleasure! [ELLA TAKES AN OBVIOUS DEEP BREATH, ALMOST A SIGH]. As the sun began to rise and his playing became slower, slower to almost a whisper [LONG PAUSE] he and I were the only two people in that room, the only two people on Earth as far as I was concerned, and he looked at me longingly, or perhaps he wasn't looking at me at all but simply in a solemn dreamlike jazzman's state. A million miles away from whoever I was before and whoever I was to become after, in Birdland, this jazz god, this angel headed beauty; had touched, kissed, swept up and penetrated me through his music.
[ELLA STOPS ROCKING HER HIPS AND TURNS DIRECTLY TOWARDS THE AUDIENCE, MAKING A ROMANTIC GESTURE]
In a dizzy jazz hallucination of one exotic, heart racing, flights of fancy of a midnight hour, like Romeo and Juliet we spent one solitary night in ecstatic embrace.
[THE JAZZ MUSICIAN LOOKS DOWN AT ELLA, SHE TURNS TOWARDS HIM, GAZING, BACK TO THE AUDIENCE AND HE PLAYS A HAUNTING LAST LONG NOTE. LIGHTS GO DARK].
POSTED BY ASH AT 10:32 PM NO COMMENTS:
THE YAZOO DELTA BLUES RECORDINGS:
AN AMERICAN FOLK MUSICAL
MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR JIM RAYMOND BURNS: GOVERNOR OF MISSISSIPPI IN 1933. HAS NO SYMPATHY FOR THE POOR OR NEGRO. DECLARED NO ONE WILL BE PARDONED WHILE HE IS IN OFFICE.
PARDONS BLUES SINGER CHARLIE JOHNSTON FROM PRISION.
PAUL WARREN THE GOVERNORS ASSISTANT
MISSISSIPPI CHARLIE JOHNSTON: LEGONDARY NEGRO blues guitar player/singer who is captured on tape and later, posthumously, elevated to super star status in the music world. He is based on Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Skip James and several others of the early blues masters.
OLD DAVID ROMINE: FAMOUS ETHNOMUSICOLOGIST NARRARATING THE STORY IN A RECOLLECTION OF HIS VISIT IN 1933
YOUNG DAVID ROMINE: THE AMERICAN ETHNOMUSICOLOGIST IN THE DELTA IN 1933
NPR JOURNALIST: INTERVIEWING OLD ROMINE
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS: MISSISSISSIPPI STATE PENN INMATE
THE PRISION CHAIN GANG:
MOSTLY NEGRO PRISIONERS DUE TO UNFAIR JUSTICE SYSTEM, SING ALL DAY LONG TO ESCAPE THE PRISON BLUES
LIL' HUEY JAMES JR.: A 17-YEAR-OLD NEGRO LEVEE WORKER
THE LEVEE WORKERS: MINROTIY DOWNTRODDEN GAND OF WORKERS, SING LEVEE CRIES WHILE WORKING ALL DAY ON THE LEVEES
The Yazoo Delta Blues Recordings
It is my fictional version of the travels of real life ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax's to the southern US in the early 1930's in which they discovered music legends Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, captured the fascinating socio-political landscape of the early south, and recorded the roots of Southern American folk music via normal every day poor black and white workers and prisoners.
THE YAZOO DELTA BLUES RECORDINGSOPENING SCENE:
I'M JUST A POOR WARE FARING STRANGER BEGINS TO PLAY
[A journalist is interviewing David Romine on Stage. He is old and infirm, sitting down to an interview about his 1933 journey to the south to record the music of the people].
And what exactly do you remember about that summer in the Delta, Mr. Romine?
I can hear America singing.
I can hear her singing some grand protest of the soul. They had no idea what they had, how valuable it was, they had no idea how valuable their songs were.
[ THE JOURNALIST EXITS STAGE LEFT AND OLD ROMINE MOVES TO THE SIDE OUT OF THE SCENE TO NARRARATE. THE CURTAIN BEHIND OLD LOMAX OPENS TO THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA IN 1933, A YOUNG ROMINE IS WALKING WITH HIS ASSISTANTS, THEY CART A 500 POUND SOUND RECORDER].
From the depths of the Delta, I hear it crying, longing, laughing…I hear America singing. The Blues run like a deep river through American history and culture, giving expression to the men and women who worked the farms, levee camps and prisons of the American South.
I sought out to capture the roots of American folklore-and I found it in the blues. It was the summer of 1933 and I had just gotten out of graduate school up North. I had a calling, I had to capture the dynamic quality of the American folk song. I knew that these songs were born, had a life and then simply faded into Obscurity.
[THE TWO MOVE TO STAGE LEFT, CENTER STAGE IS NOW THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA IN 1933 OUTSIDE THE MISSISSIPPI STATE PENITENTARY]
SCENE 2 THE PEN
[The prisoner chain gang begins to sing as they are chained together working outside the prison]
Po Lazarus is played
[ROMINE ENTERS THE FIELD YARD AND WAITS TO MEET WITH A NEGRO PRISIONER, 'BLU' BOY EDWARDS TO TALK ABOUT THE SINGING THAT GOES ON AMONGST THE INMATES, A WARDEN BRINGS HIM IN CUFFS]
Here's this here Negro you requested sir. I don' know what you could possibly learn from him, just some small time petty thief. Let me remind you he's due back on the chain gang in half an hour.
[Young Romine doesn't look at the warden but instead smiles at 'Blu' he address the warden]
Young Romine [slightly sarcastic]:
I'm sure sir, you wouldn't understand. Don't worry I'll have him back on your chain gang as soon as were finished.
So, 'Blu', out there on the chain gang…
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS:
First of all, Blu, you don't have to call me sir. My names
David, just plain David is just fine.
[Blu is silent and confused by his kindness but slightly smiles]
Out there on the chain gang, you all sing to what, encourage spirits, or forget?
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS [nervous and stuttering but excited that someone is interested in what he has to say]:
No, Now Boss, what makes it go so better, when your singing, you know how you, (stutters) you, you forget, you see? And the time that pass on with ya'. But if you just get your mind devoted on one somethin' it look like it be hard for you to make it, see…and the [stutters] The, the, the day be long look like. And to forget his mind from being devoted to being on one thing he jus' practically take up singing.
What makes a good leader?
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS:
What makes a good leader, in a way? What you mean, boss?
Does he have to have a real good voice? Or a certain kind of voice?
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS:
Well it doesn't exactly make one difference about the dependability of his voice or nothin' like that boss, it take to the man with the most experience, to my understanding, to make the best leader. If you bring a brand new man, you see, and he had the voice, I mean even if he could sing like Peter could preach, and he didn't know what to sing, well that jus don' do no good. But here's a feller, maybe he aint 'got no voice for singing but he been corroborating with the people so long, and been on the job so long, till' he know jus exactly how it should go and he could just usually talk it, you understand how the work would go good wouldn't you? He don' have to have no good voice.
So it's keeping up with the time?
'BLU' BOY EDWARDS:
Yeah! You understand, that's what it takes, your time, that's all it is! You could just whistle, I mean, if you know your time and can stay in time, why you could just whistle and don't even sing and do just as good as if you were singin'…but you have to be experienced.
[Another prisoner CHARLIE JOHNSTON enters the exercise yard with a guitar and eagerly walks up to Romine and Blu. He has obviously overheard the last part of their conversation.]
Why hello, I believe I heard you two discussin' what makes a good leader out on that chain gang. Well, let me tell you, if you lookin' for the best leader in this hear pen, I'm your man.
[He holds out his hand to Romine, ignores Blu]
Charlie Johnston's the name, music's the game. I see your talkin' to Blu Boy here, well sir, this man is all wrong for your project here, you've got yourself a bona fide musical expert in Mr. Charlie Johnston.
You're that fellow from up north, doin' all those recordings round' the Delta.
I suppose I have developed a reputation around here already. I'm an ethnomusicologist, a field recorder, I'm here with this young man 'Blu' whose telling me all about those prison songs you all sing out there on the chain gang.
What'd you interested in what some ol' negroes be singin' while locked up.
I want to capture America's true story over my microphone. I'm looking for the roots of the American black song.
[Johnston sits down and thinks for a second, meanwhile, Blu remains but is silent]
I believe that there is no way you are going to be able to leave this penitentiary Mr. Romine until you've heard ol' Mississippi Charlie Johnston sing and play the blues.
[He begins to play, I Looked At The Sun begins to play, Romine, shocked and impressed realizes that he has found something very special in Charlie Johnston]
Mr. Johnston, I do believe I would like to work with you, record more songs, if that's OK with you.
Boss, I don' do nothin' all day but sing and play the blues, if you want to record it, well that'd be just fine by me, but Mr. Romine, I don' know if these here prison folks would take kindly to you coming in here recording, much less let me off the chain to do so.
I am an American citizen
[He mutters to Romine, glaring around]
These Memphis cops call me vagrant, but I'm a musician. These Southern laws don't recognize a man by his talents. They just think a…
[He pauses and brings his face close to DAVIDS.]
"You ain't from 'round here. You don't play no part in all this mess goin' 'round here. You don't know nothin about it, and I, Willie B., better known as 61, because I rambles 61 Highway from Chicago clean down to New Orleans with my guitar for my buddy, I am going to tell you."
It sure isn't an idyllic world out there Mr. Johnston; and everyone in the Delta is so far removed from any centers of political decision-making or media or anything. That's where my mission lies: helping to give a voice to people outside of the system; people who have developed these rich veins of human expression that stretched far back into time. I believe these stories, the music are the true voices of our collective roots. I like you, Mr. Johnston, and I think your story is important to capture. Well, Mr. Johnston, I'll see what I can do about that. Don't worry, you've got something, something I've traveled all across the south and never heard, you've got a real gift to share.
[EXIT ROMINE, JOHNSTON, BLU. IT IS NOW THE MISSISSIPPI GOVERNORS OFFIC. ENTER GOV. AND HIS ASSISTANT WARREN
Mr. Governor, David Romine has sent this over to you. He says it's urgent.
[Warren hands the governor a record]
What is this, a record?
Yes, sir I believe it is
Well I'll be! Warren don't just stand there, play the damn thing!
[Warren puts the record on the player and "Hard time Killing Floor Blues begins to play]
Who is this here fellow, Warren?
Some Negro doing time in the pen, Charlie Johnston I believe. He's some kind of pet project of this Romine fellow, he sent it over.
[Warren turns over the record]
It had something written on the back, boss.
Johnston? A Negro sang this? An inmate? What's it say?
[Warren turns it over]
It's a plea from Romine. He wants the Negro's sentence commuted.
Commuted you say? What's this fellow in for?
Robbery. He has three years left on his sentence.
[Governor looks down at the album and thinks]
Well, if God gave a man a talent like that it seems almost a sin to keep him from sharin' that gift.
[The Governor pauses and thinks]
Charlie Johnston, under the care and supervision of Mr. Romine of course, has hereby had his sentence commuted, active immediately.
[Warren begins to leave the office to carry out the orders, the Governor calls out to him]
Oh, and Paul, make sure they keep sendin' me over more records!
[EXIT GOV AND WARREN. YOUNG ROMINE APPEARS ALONGSIDE A LINE OF LEVEE WORKERS The Levee Workers ARE Singing:
Lonesome valley plays. A young worker
LIL' HUEY JAMES JR, walks up to ROMINE with a guitar]
So, Huey, what have you got for me today?
LIL' HUEY JAMES JR.:
He picks up his guitar "This next lil' title its called the lil' Levee Camp Blues, Work till went stone blind, work till death, couldn't find a mule when he shore dun left…That's down in the Delta, when I learned this er' song.
] He begins to play but first looks up and speaks]
[Looks up from his guitar and cries out]
LIL' HUEY JAMES JR:
Boy, let's wind some'!
The Music plays:
"Levee Camp Blues"
[EXIT LEVEE CAMP. ENTER JOHNSTON. HE is seated solo on stage with is guitar. He begins to play a solemn tune, without looking up he addresses the audience.]
My gravestone is marked: "Resting in the blues."
I died July 1938, a hot summer night, in a little town in Mississippi called Hazlehurst. I was playin' a show at some little joint called Three Forks. Three Forks, owned by a regula nasty son-a-bitch called "Honey Boy" Edwards.
[He looks down at his guitar]
I was up and poisoned that night for looking at his lil' gal the wrong way, trying to make her. Bastard up and poisoned me. [He pauses] But yall' don' remember my death, what most anybody remember bout' me, is the crossroads. They say that night, where US highway 49 and 61 intersect, on a lonely Delta crossroads; I met with a supernatural figure for a mystical communion.
[He looks up and adjusts his glasses]
They say that night I met with the Devil im' self and sold my very soul to play this hear guitar, for a musical gift that would led to fortune and fame, sold my soul for the only power a black man was allowed, the music, all we had.
[He puts his guitar down]
What yall' don't know is that at that time, down in the Delta, there was a rule. A rule that put the fear of God in any traveling negro who happened upon a sunset on a lonely road. The white folk of the Delta made sure we knew, "Nigger don't let the sun go down on you here."
Well, standing at that crossroads I said "Run tell my boy Willie Brown I'm standing at the crossroads, sun goin' down on me. You see, I requested ol' Willie be told in the event of my death.
[Picks up his guitar and begins to strum]
Mmm, the son was a-goin' down. And at the crossroads, Lord have mercy, any of us could have met the Devil. Country people aren't afraid to look the Devil in the face. He is a familiar figure in the Delta. They see him in the courthouse every time a black man goes to prison for some bogus charge. They see him as they work long hours at the levee camps for pennies, they see him in the countless men and women hanging from Mississippi trees for being a negro in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes they know they devil well.
[JOHNSTON EXITS AND OLD ROMINE AND JOURNALIST TAKE CENTER STAGE AGAIN, AND IT IS NOW MODERN DAY]
I met Johnston the Mississippi Penitentiary in 1933. We came there looking for the roots of American black song, and we certainly found them with him. Well I never did see Johnston again after that. Up and got himself killed, young and stupid. Playing around with the wrong man's wife. He ended up selling millions of copies, gaining legionary fame among some of the greatest rock stars who ever recorded since his death. He is the only blues musician to sell millions of albums worldwide.
What do you think came out of this first journey, besides the music of course. What is it about this native music that seems to have stood the test of time?
That summer in the Delta I laid down 87 tracks. Men, women and children, just singing. You see, the music, the folklore, represented something distinctly American, and bridges across which all men of all nations may stride to say "You are my brother." The music made them brothers, Guthrie, Johnston, the hearts and hands of all the others who's music was born out of the struggle of those times. It encompasses the feelings of alienation, dissatisfaction orphaning, rootlessness-the sense of being a second class citizen; lost love and family and place were the norm for those living in the Delta in the early 1900's. What I got, what it turned out to be…well [PAUSE] well that, that was their America, [PAUSE] I mean, that, that was our America.
END WITH Final Song "I Am Weary Let Me Rest "