Then you have 'Jazz'

Special to The Times

It all started with a phone call. About two years ago, Billy Taylor called Oscar-winning lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman wanting to commission a jazz song cycle for Washington's Kennedy Center, where Taylor serves as artistic advisor for jazz.

"I said, 'Yes ... but what's a jazz song cycle?' " Marilyn Bergman recalls. "And he said, 'Anything you want it to be.' "

Who could resist? The Bergmans immediately contacted Cy Coleman, the jazz pianist and award-winning composer of such Broadway hits as "City of Angels" and "Sweet Charity." A few weeks later, the Bergmans were in New York, at Coleman's place, talking jazz.

Then they started writing.

"Portraits in Jazz: A Gallery of Songs" was performed just once, in May 2002, at the Kennedy Center. Based on its success, the Bergmans and Coleman were encouraged not just to repeat, but to expand on that one-night concert. Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer at the Mark Taper Forum, also liked the idea. He gave them a slot at the Taper and signed on as director.

The result is "Like Jazz," a high-pedigree, revue-style show set to open Thursday at the Taper, now with text from Tony winner Larry Gelbart and choreography by Emmy winner Patricia Birch. But the main event is still the songs, each one telling a story about the joys, jamming or heartbreaks of people in and around the jazz world -- some real people, some imagined.

Onstage, there's an 18-piece big band made up of such noted soloists as tenor sax player Pete Christlieb and a cast of jazz stars like trumpeter-singer Jack Sheldon and singers Patti Austin and Lillias White. Dancers and singers slink, sway and shimmy in front of, alongside and on a platform above the musicians, belting out ballads and singing scat.

"We're going on an adventure about extraordinary music that's called jazz," Davidson says. "We're trying to discover and share the meaning, the immediacy, the improvisation, the value and the heart and soul of it. "

Putting together a new show is never easy, and "Like Jazz" is no exception. The biggest challenge, of course, is that it's being created on its feet, without the benefit of a published script or production history.

Then again, process is what jazz is all about, and the energy level is high in the big rehearsal hall down the street from the Taper. A dozen singers and dancers gather around the piano the first week as Coleman shapes his arrangements to what he's hearing from them as well as to what he's already written. "You can get a suit off the rack," Coleman says later, "or you can make it custom. This is a custom suit."

Rehearsals start where the show starts, with "Intro," an upbeat number introducing the music and the musicians, the instruments and the legends. It's a syncopated journey through jazz, guided from the start by an unassuming guy named Mike who is, as he puts it, "with the band." That character, played by Harry Groener, "really represents me and everybody else in the audience who likes this kind of music," Gelbart says.

Walking through the rehearsal hall, in, out and around a duplicate of the band setup, Groener's Mike introduces the vamp and the riff, the saxophones and the brass, and, eventually, "God's own horns" -- the voices. "Stick around," Mike says. "Something's cooking."

Birch, who had staged the Washington concert, does the same tailoring with dance, a new ingredient for the Taper production. "The main attraction of working on a new show is I get to put my stamp on it," says singer White, who won a Tony for her work in Coleman's show "The Life" and who also appeared in the Kennedy Center concert. "With performers like these, all you have to do is wind them up and let them go. And what comes out can be magical."

It can also be familiar. White, for instance, sings of a very confident guy in one of her numbers, "He Was Cool," and, she says, "a long time ago, I had a big crush on a bass player. I dug the way he was onstage, how he'd pack up his stuff and chat with the cats and ease on out. I'd think, 'He's so cool,' and he didn't know I was alive."

So many of the stories you see or read about jazz musicians are about their drugs or their drinking, says Alan Bergman, who grew up listening to jazz. "But they play out of joy and love, not out of anger or drugs," he adds. "And that point isn't made enough."

That point is certainly made in "Like Jazz," which Bergman calls "an opportunity to write portraits -- little vignettes -- about these wonderful people."

For months, the songwriters -- the Bergmans in Beverly Hills, Coleman in New York -- got together on whichever coast they could. Coleman and Marilyn Bergman both are on the board of ASCAP (she is president), but they'd never worked together on music. When they did, Coleman says, "we found it an easy fit. Sparks flew right away."

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Links to the past

The Bergmans, whose many award-winning songs include "The Way We Were" and "The Windmills of Your Mind," drew on their experiences as well as their jazz research. Their lyrical ballad "An Autumn Afternoon," for instance, springs from an afternoon the Bergmans spent with Carmen McRae, an old friend, a few months before the singer died.

There's a song about Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who started life as Dorothy Tipton, and another about trumpeter and singer Chet Baker. Songs chronicle lives too of composite and fictional characters -- a lounge pianist fending off drunks, lovers separated when music gigs take them out of town, a street musician with a great sound.

Gelbart, who calls himself "a recovering clarinetist," quips that he got involved with "Like Jazz" just to hear the music every night. A Tony winner for both "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "City of Angels," Gelbart was so impressed when he heard the show's songs that he immediately asked if he could write the liner notes if and when it ever became a CD. Not only did the Bergmans agree, he says, but a while later they called and asked him to write the whole thing.

There is neither plot nor traditional book to "Like Jazz," and Gelbart says that's as it should be. Since the songs tell the stories, he says, he's mainly writing song introductions and transitions. "You don't want to say what the song will say," Gelbart observes, noting that his entire play script is probably no more than 10 pages long. "You help create a mood."

Besides Gelbart's book and Birch's dances, the Taper production also includes three new songs. One of them is an ensemble number called "Quality Time," already in the show. But not finished for early previews were two additional numbers, written for White and Austin.

"Lillias has this remarkable range and power, so the tendency is to give her comic material or vocal gymnastics," Coleman says. "But she was longing for a ballad. And then you have Patti, who is very smooth and lyrical, so the tendency is to give her the ballads. But Patti is probably the best scat singer since Ella Fitzgerald. So we decided to accommodate them both."

Given that there is no set order nor heavy scenery to worry about, Davidson says, "this is the kind of show that I can try one way one night, another way another night. We've sat with 3-by-5 index cards with titles of the songs on them, asking, 'What if we try this here? Or here? 'It's kind of a jigsaw puzzle."

The changes in the lineup, among other things, have presented still more challenges for the cast and creative team. But spirits in the rehearsal hall and theater are upbeat. "Anybody in the business knows of the Bergmans and Cy Coleman," says singer Cleavant Derricks, a Tony winner for "Dreamgirls." "Here's an opportunity to do new music that they've written. Who's not going to want to do that?"

Now toss in the band. For Coleman, "it's as good a band as I've ever heard. They not only play magnificently as an ensemble but there are stunning soloists. And we feature them. The band is a character; it's always on the stage, and you begin to be more and more aware of it as we talk about musicians and their lives."

Bands, of course, are expensive. "This is the third musical in a row I've done at the Taper at about this time of year," says Davidson, referring to earlier productions of "Flower Drum Song" and "Big River." "In each case, the cost of production exceeds what we, the Taper, can put in, and it's simply because an orchestra meter runs at a faster rate."

Davidson, who will be directing three Taper productions during this, his penultimate season at its helm, says the economic climate and cuts in arts funding made outside money imperative. "I couldn't go forward unless we found $1.5 million additional money to do it. And with the help of [associate producers] Rudy Durand and Bud Yorkin, we raised all the enhancement money from one source -- Transamerica."

While Davidson emphasizes "Like Jazz" is not a Broadway tryout, both "Flower Drum" and "Big River" did move on. Even if the show doesn't have a longer life, the songwriting team hopes they've written future jazz standards.

Songs like "All the Things You Are" and "Body and Soul" get into the jazz mainstream because more and more people play and sing them, observes Alan Bergman. "A song becomes a jazz song," he says. "It doesn't begin that way."

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'Like Jazz'

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles

When: Opens Thursday. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays, plus Mondays Dec. 22 and 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, plus Dec. 23 and Jan. 21, at 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Dark Dec. 24-25, 31; Jan. 13-16.

Ends: Jan. 25

Price: $45-$65

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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