Friday, May 21, 2010

Side Man (Fall: 2000)

Everything else had changed by fall of 2000, why not me? I am notorious for ragging on the intense jazz fan, a personality conglomerate I have dubbed "Jazz Douche".

I've written about "Jazz Douche" before but here I will give you a quick recap of the dominant traits of this rampant sub-species:

How do you know if you are a "Jazz Douche"?

Here are some common indicators...

1. A beret that looks as if it was kidnapped off of the tete of Marcel Marceau's bastard nephew.

2. A storage space with alphabetized vinyl in milk crates.

3. Facial hair that requires constant attention yet still looks like some sort of rabid animal attack.

4. Fanny pack.

5. You say things like 'Dig?' and 'Cool, daddy-o.'

6. You know that Hector "Gobble-Neck" Ramsay played on the first take of The Kansas City Trio's version of 'Chatanooga Choo-Choo' but then he ate some bad fish so they had to call in Arizona Smith for the second take. But, see, on the second take, they had Arizona set up in the bathroom and his stand-up bass kept scratching up against the faucet so they wound up using Gobble-Neck's take anyway, in spite of the fish.

7. You can't play an instrument.

8. You play Santana records to get in your wife's pants.

9. You smell like bologna.

10. Your pants have pleats.

11. For a brief shining moment, you thought Yes was going to change EVERYTHING.

12. Listening to Frankie 'Two-Tone' Walters recording of 'Opus Etude Interlude No. 27 in A Minor' for the first time was the catalyst for ending your second marriage.

13. You wrote a short novel imagining a militia led by Miles Davis overthrowing the MTV Total Request Live set and playing 'Sketches of Spain' on an endless loop.

14. You used to have a hoop earring in your right ear until your boss at the convalescent hospital made you take it out because it was unsanitary.

15. You have an 'I'd Rather Be Be-Bopping' bumpersticker on your Ford Escort.

16. Your eyelids are heavy.

17. After you've had a few cocktails, you start raving about how everything would have gone differently if Chet Baker hadn't died...he'd have been the teen idol, the Beatles wouldn't have made such a splash, and the world would be grooving to Chick Corea a little bit more.

18. You have bad dreams about guitars.

19. You like Pauly Shore comedies.

20. You are deeply ashamed of it, but you secretly prefer Julie Andrews' version of "My Favorite Things" to Coltrane's.

There. If you need any further help in identifying a "Jazz Douche", either in the mirror or in your general vicinity, check back in with me.

When I got the audition for "Side Man" at Stamford Theater Works I knew I was going to get the part because the whole thing takes place in the 1950's jazz underworld of New York City. Bang, I got the part.

Dennis Delaney was the director and I liked him immediately. His wife Shelley was to play my mother. At various times in the play my character, who also functions as the narrator, steps back in time to play himself at ten years old, seventeen, etc. Dennis would later turn me on to The Shaggs and their profoundly disturbing album "Philosophy Of The World" for which I cannot quite say that I am grateful for.

But Dennis also took the time to make everyone in the cast a mix of jazz songs that he thought were appropriate for their character. I took it begrudgingly and muffled my "Jazz Douche" comedy routine. Lo and behold I realized upon listening to this assortment of compositions that "Jazz Douches" were one thing but jazz music was another entirely. I was blown away.

I let go my prejudice about the music and immersed myself in it for the duration of the play.

The play ran in Stamford so on the nights that we performed I would take the commuter train from the city with the rest of the strap-hangers. There was something oddly subversive about this. I was a commuter along with the rest of the bankers, executives, admins, nurses, doctors and lawyers. But my nine to five was on the tail end of their journey, it began at 8PM with me stepping on stage.

The play was an odd echo for me of "Biloxi Blues", another play in which I addressed the audience directly from within the action of the play. I had not done this since that play and it was like slipping into an old shoe. Dennis thought he'd need to allot time to developing this aspect of the play but quickly we realized that we didn't need to belabor it, especially since the rest of the play is so packed with challenging moments.

There are charmed rehearsal processes and charmed productions. This was one of them.

And for me it was capped by an experience that I will never forget.

There are few actors I look up to. I prefer to look ACROSS at actors from a place of equality. Being a fan does nothing for me. I cultivate the feeling that I am a partner, a peer, even with the most successful people I encounter.

Occasionally though, there are exceptions.

Stamford Theater Works was housed in a small red barn behind an exclusive prep school. It had an illustrious history and since many luminaries lived either in Stamford or nearby Greenwich it had strong support from many famous actors and writers.

Word came to us before a show that the one and only Gene Wilder would be in attendance. He was a friend of the owner of the theater and made a point to see all of the shows. Normally he stayed and spoke with the cast but since he was battling cancer he might not be able to do so this time and wanted to congratulate us IN ADVANCE for our show. Classy.

For Gene Wilder I am a fan. I am not on equal footing, never could be, wouldn't dare. As a kid I took "Young Frankenstein" into my cells. "Blazing Saddles" followed and he went so deep into my psyche that if you did a DNA test you might come back with a strange identification. He is like the Red Sox of actors, the local sports team that you root for reflexively, almost like breathing.

So to know that he would be sitting in the audience? An audience I would be addressing directly as a narrator? Wow.

Once the play started all knowledge of that flew out of my brain. This is a wonderful thing about performing. Everything else disappears. Migraines, back aches, heart break, hero in the seats? Gone. The show went well as I recall, it always did. The response varied night to night only because there were different bodies in the seats, not because the show was any different or better or worse.

The audience filed out and the stage manager let us know that Gene was waiting in the house to talk to us.

He was very frail. He walked with a cane. But he was extremely gracious and complimentary of all of our performances and the production as a whole. He mentioned specific moments that he enjoyed (managing to positively implicate the entire cast with just a few words) and then he was off, helped to his car.

I was blown away. I have been star struck very few times in my life and this is by far the most obvious example. I was nervous, I was sweating, I was worried that I might blurt out something stupid, all in all I felt like a kid about to ask his first girl to dance.

I left the theater on a huge high but also very concerned about his health. If he'd passed away that week I wouldn't have been surprised. But somehow he rallied! In fact, his recovery allowed him to perform himself in a series of Moliere one acts at the Westport Country Playhouse which Joanne Woodward ran for years. Melody hadn't moved to New York in time to see "Side Man" but she bought me tickets to see Gene Wilder sling his hash on stage.

And that day? He had become a peer to me, a guy who'd had some health problems and was back doing what he loved. He was magnificent that day, giving Moliere's crazy farce total reality and life.

So by the time "Side Man" closed I had lost some of my long-time animosity towards jazz and I'd slung MY hash for one of the greats.

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