Drummer Max Roach has been in San Diego since Jan. 2, honing the music he has written to go with “The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson,” an original musical by Amira Baraka and getting its world premiere at the San Diego Rep.
The veteran jazzman, who got his start playing with Charlie Parker, has been helping rehearse the actors and a crew of local musicians.
Music is tightly interwoven with dialogue and action in this play, based on the life of Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson and the forceful characters around him: Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Count Basie.
Roach’s first involvement with theater came in the early 1950s, when he put music to a theatrical adaptation of a story by black author Richard Wright, directed by Lloyd Richards, then head of the drama department at Yale University. America was a different kind of country then, Roach recalled. Integration in schools hadn’t been mandated by the Supreme Court, and the play, rooted in the Black American experience, had a tough go of it.
“It lasted three days on Broadway and folded,” Roach said.
Roach has since scored several other pieces for the theater, including a jazz version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the San Diego Rep in 1987.
“This is a different process,” said Roach, who collaborated many times during the 1980s with director George Ferencz, Baraka and San Diego Rep producing director Sam Woodhouse before Woodhouse brought them together for “Bumpy Johnson.”
The Shakespearean experiment was a free-flowing affair, with lots of room for both actors and musicians to improvise. The new play is more carefully scripted, although Roach expects both the musicians and singer-actors to bring their own creativity to the stage.
“When you write a piece, and the actors take it off the paper, they have to create with it. That’s what we call improvisation. If we write a song and it’s all annotated, the notes are there, I would expect the actors to take it off the paper and make a human expression with their own feelings, their own juices that enhance what we do.”
In their search for the best possible combinations of acting and singing talent, the producers auditioned more than 500 actors in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.
The musicians that Roach will be working with include saxophonist Daniel Jackson, drummer Chuck McPherson, trumpeter Burnett Anderson, bassist Rick Shipps and pianist Kevin Flournoy.
Although it might be daunting for a young drummer like McPherson to live up to Roach’s expectations, Roach said directing his fellow musicians comes naturally, and he doesn’t overpower them with his own ideas.
“I’ve done that all my life, with the various groups I have. The nature of this particular music is, ‘OK, Chuck, this is a piece where you use brushes, this is the tempo, you just do it your way.’ The musicians here are impressive, and there’s music all the way through the play--during dialogue, being sung, choral work. All the people involved are fine musicians.”
Roach said there is serious interest in the play from Broadway producers, but his job ends when it premieres Wednesday at the Lyceum Stage downtown. Previews began Saturday, and the play is to run through Feb. 16.
Mose Allison sings in a laid-back drawl and plays piano with a quirky, melodic touch that has made him a favorite of serious jazz buffs. But when it comes to composing, he thinks his wry wit makes him the Pat Paulsen of jazz.
“He came to see me one night in Hermosa Beach, and I took that as an omen,” joked Allison, who opens two weeks at Elario’s Wednesday night. “I used to say that I’m a dead-pan comedian.”
Allison’s newest album, “My Backyard” released last year, is packed with the sort of satiric material that has become his trademark. It has songs such as “The Getting Paid Waltz,” about trying to track down his pay in the waning hours of a club night, and “Ever Since I Stole the Blues,” in which he imagines a front page headline, “White Boy Steals the Blues.”
At 63, Allison has never sounded better. His seasoned, Southern drawl only mellows with age, and his bag of piano moves, ranging from Thelonious Monk-ish surprises to New Orleans honky tonk, gets bigger and bigger.
For Allison, Elario’s is a “very pleasant job. I like jobs where you just take the elevator to work.”
Allison will be backed by San Diegans Gunnar Biggs on bass, Gary LeFebvre on sax and Bob Weller on drums. He will appear Wednesday through Sunday nights this week and next. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and at 9, 10:30 and midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Admission to Allison’s shows is $5 Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and $7.50 Friday and Saturday.
Saxophonist Maceo Parker is best known as a former sideman of James Brown, but his new album, “Roots Revisited,” showcases his blues and jazz leanings. Backed by a band driven by the pulsing organ of Don Pullen, Parker runs down an eclectic repertoire that ranges from Ray Charles (“Them That Got”) to Charles Mingus (“Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul”) to Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow”) to Jay McShann (“Jumpin’ the Blues”). Parker is a soulful, polished alto man whose talent goes well beyond the honking R&B; backup role he played with Brown. He plays Elario’s Monday night at 8 and 10.
RIFFS: “Live From Nick’s Cafe,” recorded at the Amsterdam club, debuts on KSDS-FM on Sunday night at 7, replacing the long-running “Le Jazz Club” series. The first show is “Opus De Jazz Revisited,” featuring saxophonist Frank Wess and vibraphonist Dave Pike with Dutch pianist Rein De Graff. . . .
This week’s “Club Date” jazz program on KPBS-TV showcases guitarist Joe Pass. It airs Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and repeats Monday at 1:30 p.m. . . .
In a tribute to the now-defunct Jazzmine record store in La Jolla, which had a tradition of live jazz Sunday afternoons, musicians who used to play at the jams are reuniting Sunday from 2-4 p.m. for “Jazzmine at the Athenaeum,” at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. The group includes Bobby Gordon on clarinet, John Best on trumpet, Jay Hearn on drums, Bill Hunter on piano and Stan Booth on bass.