Home Lifestyle ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Returns, Bringing a Jazz Tale to a New Generation

‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Returns, Bringing a Jazz Tale to a New Generation

‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Returns, Bringing a Jazz Tale to a New Generation


The team behind the Encores! revival of “Jelly’s Last Jam” is not looking to reinvent George C. Wolfe’s ambitious 1992 Broadway show. But they do hope that this rendition, opening on Wednesday at New York City Center, will introduce the musical to a new generation.

Taking that idea a step further, Jason Michael Webb, the show’s guest music director, said he also wanted audiences “to immerse themselves in a joy in a time period that does not exist anymore.”

That joy comes via the story of jazz and the works of Jelly Roll Morton, a ragtime pianist who said he invented the genre in 1902. In “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Morton is portrayed as a conflicted soul, a mixed-race man of Creole descent whose light hue gives him privilege in his hometown, New Orleans. He rebels against his heritage and soaks in the music of economically disadvantaged Black people, stirring up dissension in his family. He goes out on the road and becomes a well-known musician. Yet as jazz music’s popularity swells, Morton’s impact on it is forgotten. He’s a pioneer but isn’t given proper credit for it.

While Morton’s music is the centerpiece here, the show also features lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and additional compositions by Luther Henderson. In his review of the production, which starred Gregory Hines and Savion Glover as the older and younger versions of Morton, the Times critic Frank Rich called the first act “sizzling,” adding, “at once rollicking and excessive, roof-raising and overstuffed, you fly into intermission, high on the sensation that something new and exciting is happening.”

The Encores! production features slightly tweaked arrangements by Webb, a Broadway veteran and Tony Award nominee for his orchestrations for “MJ the Musical.” Nicholas Christopher (“Sweeney Todd”) and Alaman Diadhiou take on the older and younger Morton roles, respectively, and other cast members include Billy Porter, Joaquina Kalukango, Leslie Uggams and Okierete Onaodowan.

“The joy inside the creation of this musical is the excitement around watching a real evocation of the Black experience,” the director Robert O’Hara said. “Not all Black experiences are the same. There is messiness and genius in it.”

A story this robust needs equally robust music, and “Jelly’s Last Jam” weaves jazz and the blues into a seamless tapestry along with tap dancing (choreographed by Dormeshia). During a recent conversation, Webb talked about what to expect from this production, how he prepared for it, and what he hopes the audience will learn. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The musical funnels jazz and the blues into the narrative. Tell me more about how these genres were blended here.

The most brilliant minds put it together the first time. And those minds did not neglect to consider that jazz is rooted in other things, and the same things that it’s rooted in, sprouted out other forms of music. We have jazz, yes, but jazz didn’t just spread out of nowhere. It came from a place. And even Jelly in the dialogue in the show talks about how he takes full credit for turning what was blues and this kind of amorphous version of music into what we call jazz now. And then it’s complex, his journey, whether or not he’s actually responsible, like we go through the journey of discovering that he may not have been the sole inventor of this musical genre.

How does the score itself convey the musical’s overall message, what you were just talking about?

All of the joy that is in those really authentic jazz orchestrations is present. And as soon as you put that music into the instruments, onto the bodies of these players, the whole thing just comes to life. So I think that, again, we have the benefit of the orchestrators doing all of that great work before, and my job is just to make sure that we retain that and that it continues to speak in the joyous way that it was originally intended to.

How does your work here differ from what you did with “MJ?”

With something like “MJ,” we had all this music that we loved and we figured out how it told the story, and so we were able to chop up the songs and rearrange. And while staying true to the sound that people coming into the theater are expecting and have an affection for, we were able to kind of restructure everything with this show. We really wanted to honor what was, and it creates a nostalgia, or at least the nostalgia that this type of music generates was a great starting point for us. And we didn’t stray far from it. So something like Michael involved a lot of, “How can we explode this out or change this in order to affect the audience? How can we help what’s already here shine even brighter?”

With the Michael Jackson musical, we’re talking about pop, funk and rock. Now we’re talking about jazz. What did you have to tap into to put this music together?

No matter what genre you look at, they’re all rooted in some form of truth. And they involve characters who have very human experiences. So really, you could tell this type of story if you switched it up and said, “Oh, it’s about a Black country singer.” You could use Black country music in order to tell this actual story. Michael was a Black artist who did pop music. You could still find the humanity, the love, the joy, the regret. Every part of the human experience you can find in any one of these genres. So I actually don’t think it’s very different as you move from genre to genre; you still have to lift the lid off that genre, look inside and find the truth and build from that.

Did you find yourself listening to a lot of Jelly Roll Morton as you prepared this music? How did you prepare for it?

Definitely listening to Jelly Roll, definitely listening to the original score, listening to recordings that had been made of their performances. Going to [the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center] and watching the original production with Gregory Hines. My job was really to go in and immerse myself in whatever digital modern way I possibly could in order to arrive in our rehearsal room. Having been washed in that sound and that joy and that time period.

What did you learn about Morton as you prepared?

You listen to recordings from a century ago, and you listen to old recordings of work songs, they weren’t creating music to be read and performed. They were creating music that came from a thing. If you’re working on a chain gang, let’s say, and you have a sledgehammer and you’re pounding out a rhythm, there might be a song that goes along with that. And the purpose of that song is to get you through that workday. So there’s an actual purpose underneath it. When you listen back to the old recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, or any of these old artists, it’s like you go back to the purpose from which that music came.

My experience listening to those old recordings is that if you close your eyes and listen, you almost see the entire world come to life in a way that it doesn’t now.

So, what are you looking to convey with this revival?

This musical is about a man who had a talent and a gift, and allowed that gift to carry him to a place that I think he may not have intended. We find ourselves watching Jelly Roll Morton as a man who was given this great gift and didn’t necessarily treat the people in his life in a way that allowed them to celebrate him all the way to the end. He had a very conflicting journey. And by the end, I think we are all reminded to use our powers for good, to use our gifts for good, and to figure out a way to enrich others with our gift. And so when people walk out of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” I hope that they’re not only uplifted by the music, but they’re reminded to take care of each other and to take care of the people that they value in their lives.


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