The year was 1939; the place, New York City. Eager to see jazz gain wider acceptance, a small group of jazz all-stars took the bold step of staging their own musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Louis Armstrong played the part of Bottom, the clowning weaver. Other cast members included Benny Goodman and Pearl Bailey. Walt Disney designed the sets.

After a weeklong run at Radio City Music Hall, the production folded. The public, it seems, just wasn’t ready for such a radical departure from tradition.


Now, nearly 50 years later, the Bard’s immortal comedy is being jazzed up once again, right here in San Diego.

Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, one of the fathers of be-bop and a former sideman of Charlie Parker, is writing the score for the San Diego Repertory Theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Between now and Aug. 19, when the play opens at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza, Roach, 62, is keeping his fingers crossed. He’s hoping that this time, the public won’t be as closed-minded.

“Actually, jazz and Shakespeare go together quite well,” Roach said. “Shakespeare has a lot of long monologues that you can deal with like John Coltrane or Miles Davis solos: within the basic story line, there’s ample opportunity to improvise.

“Each time a jazz musician performs ‘Embraceable You,’ for example, he has the license to deal with it a little differently. But it’s still a ballad and a love song.

“With ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we’re taking the same approach. No matter how much the actors improvise, it’s still Shakespeare. As long as the story’s there, as long as they express the right attitudes and lines, everything’s fine.”


In the last 10 years, Roach has scored nearly a dozen stage and film productions, including three Sam Shepard plays: “Suicide in B Flat,” “Back Bog Beast Bait” and “Angel City.” Two years ago, Roach received an Obie Award from the Village Voice for his work on the Shepard trilogy.

“But with ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ I’m taking even more liberties than I did in the past,” Roach said. “In the other plays, the piece itself was already mounted, and then I came in and set music to it.

“With this production, however, the actors have the kind of improvisational freedom that jazz musicians have. They’re able to take a theme, or a monologue, and within that theme or monologue create something entirely new.”

Accordingly, Roach said, instead of writing the score in advance, he’s writing as he goes along. Since arriving in San Diego on July 14, he has been spending six days a week with the four musicians-- keyboards, reeds, percussion and bass--and 14 cast members, doing most of his composing during the rehearsals.

“We’re working organically, so to speak,” he said with a laugh. “It’s original music, tailor-made to each particular actor or each particular moment, so it keeps developing each day as we go along.

“Basically, I’ll come up with something and then the actors or musicians take it to another level. One of the beauties of jazz is that you can write something and give it to a fine player, and he’ll make more of it than you put on paper.


“He’ll add his imagination, yet still preserve the point.”

The teaming up of Roach and the Rep came about last summer, when Sam Woodhouse, the Rep’s producing director, attended a national theater convention in Massachusetts.

Among the speakers were Roach and director George Ferencz, who had worked together on the Shepard plays.

“After our presentation, Sam came up to George and introduced himself,” Roach said. “And before I knew it, George told me we had been invited to San Diego to participate in some sort of project that involved Shakespeare and improvisation.”

Roach has been on the cutting edge of jazz for nearly half a century. After several years of playing with big bands, he began refining his drum technique so that he carried the beat on the cymbal and played subsidiary rhythms on the rest of the trap set, thus allowing greater mobility for the soloists.

In the middle 1940s, the man whom the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz calls “the greatest drummer in modern jazz” started working with such early improvisers as Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Together, they played a crucial role in developing a revolutionary new style of jazz, known as be-bop.

By 1954, Roach was fronting the first in a series of critically acclaimed quintets with sidemen like Clifford Brown, Harold Land and Sonny Rollins. Since then, he has toured and recorded with such equally distinguished musicians as Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.


Today, Roach divides his time between touring with several different quartets and percussion ensembles--he gives about 130 concerts a year--and exploring other mediums, like theater.

“I think what I’m doing now, with this piece, is as revolutionary as anything I’ve ever done,” Roach said. “After centuries of rigor, Shakespeare is finally being taken out of his tight britches and put on stage in an entirely different way.”