Jazz Institute of Chicago


by Warren Leight
directed by Anna D. Shapiro
currently at Steppenwolf Theater

review by Steven Hashimoto

At the gracious invitation of Orbert Davis (who provides the recorded trumpet in this play's sound design) I attended one of the initial performances of the Tony-award-winning play Sideman. I was prepared for the worst, but came away pleasantly surprised and impressed with the honesty of the writing, the ingenuity of the production (always a strong point at Steppenwolf), and the strength of the acting. The day-to-day grind of the professional musician's life has traditionally been ill-served by Broadway and Hollywood, but Sideman goes a long way towards rectifying that situation.

The play revolves around Clifford (named after Clifford Brown, a good sign right from the start—if this were Hollywood, the character would be named Satchmo, I'm sure) and his jazz-trumpeter father, Gene, and the rest of Gene's world—his ex-wife Terry, his musical cohorts Jonesy, Al and Ziggy, and Patsy, the waitress who has a bad habit of marrying musicians.

The framework of the play hangs on Clifford's reminiscing about life with Gene as he prepares to go see Gene perform, perhaps for the last time. Through a series of flashbacks we see how Gene and Terry met, high (and low) points of their relationship, and the general arc of Gene's career as a free-lance big-band trumpet player. Consequently, we also get a view of how music and society changed, from the days of the travelling big bands to the advent of Elvis and rock 'n' roll.

Although I thought that some of the characters were painted in fairly broad strokes, very rarely did I detect false notes, either in the writing or the acting. After all, this is entertainment aimed at the masses, most of whom wouldn't know a lead player or a junkie from Michael Jackson. One of the first scenes shows Clifford reminiscing about his first trip to the unemployment office (in New York, Union musicians could claim unemployment) where his father and the guys are also signing up. The gist of it is a lecture in "jazzonomics" ("you work a club date, you can afford to play x amount of jazz gigs or take x amount of days off") had me roaring with laughter—we all know cats who think like that, don't we?

Many of the anecdotes used throughout the play had the ring of truth. Although I wasn't familiar with one about a sideman being told by Benny Goodman that he was not to use "the facilities" at a posh country club and was thus forced to relieve himself on stage, I could envision it happening (again, we've all been there, right?) And a story, pivotal to the meltdown of Gene and Terry's marriage, about Gene not receiving proper credit from a Downbeat critic for his brilliant soloing on the album that he'd been staking his career hopes on, is only too credible.

On a personal note, one minor scene resonated particularly strongly for me: Clifford brings his grade-school pals home after school so that he can scare them with the sight of Gene passed out and snoring on the couch in the middle of the day. One of my high-school friends had a father who was a professional musician, and we used to love to visit him after school; he was the only father we knew who sat around the living room with the shades drawn, watching TV at 3:30 in the afternoon and making wisecracks about the "changes" they were playing on any given soundtrack. Only later would we figure out why the shades were drawn, and what those funny cigarettes he smoked were. We thought he was wonderful, and I guess to a large extent that's why I'm who I am.

As I said, most of the characters are pretty broadly drawn and played, thankfully with the exception of both Gene and Clifford (played by Rick Snyder and Garret Dillahunt, respectively). Gene's wife, Terry (played by Rondi Reed), for the most part comes off as either a blithering ditz (though I very much enjoyed the fact that Jonesey the junkie is the only person who ever understands her) or a screaming harridan, but the character (for me, at least) was believable as a type of woman that certain types of musicians fall for.

Jonesy (played by Jason Wells) does the nod-and-stumble bit a little too extremely for my taste, but then again I've known real-life junkies. His character is handled with sympathy, though, for which I give both Leight and Wells credit. The only moment in the play that rang falsely for me as a musician is, unfortunately, perhaps the defining moment of Gene's character.

Late in his career (and in the play) Gene, Ziggy and Al are reunited on a Lester Lanin club date (that's a jobbing date to us Chicagoans). After the gig is over they hang out in the dressing room, reminiscing and bitching. Ziggy pulls out a portable cassette-player and announces that he has a copy of the last solo that Clifford Brown ever played, two nights before his death in the car crash that killed Richie Powell as well.

In a courageous move by director Anna Shapiro, the three cronies sit and listen to the entire solo, 5 or 6 choruses on "Night in Tunisia." And though the actors try their best, their reactions to the solo are not the way that real cats would react. For one thing, Al and Gene are supposedly hearing the solo for the first time, yet Al fingers an imaginary trumpet as if he knows what lines are about to come up, and they all telegraph their appreciation of choice spots rather than reacting with the joyful surprise of first-time discovery. But this is arguably a minor quibble; your average Steppenwolf audience member would never know the difference, and I suppose it's better that said audience-member is shown that so fleeting a moment as one solo out of the career of a gifted player can inspire such awe and reverence.

The other cast members are Carmen Roman as Patsy the waitress and Will Zahrn as Al. The sound design is by Joe Cerqua, and the band (recorded, unfortunately—this is a play that cries out for live musicians) includes Frank Parker, Jr., drums; Stu Greenspan, bass; Donald Neale, piano; Orbert Davis, trumpet; Steve T.S. Galloway, trombone; Bobbi Wilsyn, vocals; and an uncredited Mike Levin on flute.

I highly recommend this play to all professional players, no matter your genre (warning: the language is "adult"—the "m-f" word occurs repeatedly!). And there is no happy ending—overall one is left with a feeling of melancholy, but that's life in the big city, folks. I cringe at the thought of what Hollywood is going to do to this, which I suppose is inevitable. Matthew Perry as Clifford, Clint Eastwood as Gene, Terri Garr as Terry, and a new happy ending where Gene winds up on the Tonight Show band? I hope not...

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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