Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: OCTOBER 2, 2009
He was a key player in the Big Band era. A musical jack-of-all-trades, who could blend in or stand out, play backup or solo to showcase a stellar bandleader, singer or song. He was a Side Man, thoroughly devoted to, maybe even obsessed with, his music – and sometimes not much else.
Playwright Warren Leight , whose father was a trumpet side-man for the likes of Woody Herman, pays tribute to these unsung heroes of yesteryear in a 1999 drama that won a Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His emotionally wrenching “Side Man” simultaneously chronicles the demise of a musical age and the dissolution of a marriage.
Gene Shimmer cannot be separated from his horn. The head-in-the-clouds trumpeter is unshakably devoted to his art, unconcerned about money, possessions or anything other than playing great music. That might be acceptable as a life, except Gene happens to have a wife and a son.
Poor beleaguered Clifford, named for jazz great Clifford Brown, serves as our guide through the minefield that was his childhood. By the age of 10, Clifford was already lending his father money and taking care of his sometimes batty mother, who was drifting into alcoholism, thanks to the suggestion of one of Gene’s cronies, a one-eyed, heroin addicted trumpeter who tells her, “You marry a musician, you gotta learn to drink hard stuff.” That starts her on the path, but Gene, in his absent-minded neglect, pushes her along through 30 years of misery, always waiting for him to notice her, even attempting suicide in the effort.
Young Clifford is forced to turn down a scholarship to art school, so he can go to work and support is crumbling family. He repeatedly rescues his mother from police stations, hospitals and psych wards, and because he fears for her health and well-being, he wouldn’t dare leave home. But at 29, when we first meet him, he’s ready to start his own life, shoving off for California , finally leaving New York and his parents behind. He’s about to embark on his farewell visits; he hasn’t seen his father in five years. Contemplating the reunion forces him to revisit the painful moments of his past.
The play moves forward and backward in time, from the 1950s through the ‘80s. The emotional outbursts are extreme; the dysfunction is disturbing. And the Bang! Productions independent presentation captures the mood so well, with a bevy of compelling ensemble performances. After some behind-the-scenes upsets, the show has come through powerfully, though more nuance in the characterizations would make it even stronger. This tough, telling, often chilling piece of theater is interlaced with heart-stopping jazz. It’s a well-told story, and a fine, intense evening of both music and drama.
Bang! Productions’ “Side Man ” runs through October 11 at Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest.
©2009 PAT LAUNER