*Playwright Bill Harris has joined forces with award winning director Ed Smith to present on the New Federal Theatre stage, “Cool Blues,” a tale of an ingenious and inventive musician named B.
“B” could stand for “brilliant,” “blue” and even “burnt out,” all adjectives that would serve to describe B in the various stages of his life. Fashioned after the legendary Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, B is cool but definitely undergoing the blues.
Considered a genius, B can blow an alto sax like no other but must do this under the confines of pre-civil rights racism. He can work in the most elegant of places but cannot dine in them. His color prevents him from getting the gigs he deserves or getting the greater opportunities his talent warrants.
For all his genius, B cannot figure out how to extricate himself from his plight so he drowns it by abusing his body with drugs. What form of drugs matters not to B as long as it gives him those moments of brilliance that allow him to create. And, provide those vacant temporary moments that allow him to forget his misery.
Genius extracts a price however and before long, B moves from the bottle to the needle. As the dope flows through his veins he surrenders to the music — playing just as much for his inner satisfaction as for those who come to hear him in the clubs where he performs. Eventually ingenuity turns to nightmare leaving B the shadow of the man people expect him to be. He disappoints. Disappoints others of course but not even their disillusionment can match his own disenchantment with himself. After all, what man does not want to be remembered for those occasions he’s risen to “greatness.” This is the legacy B sought – something to show that despite his fall from grace, he had risen to prominence and at times supped among the wealthy.
Under the influence of his heroin nightmare, B’s memories arise like shadows to haunt him. He seeks to explain, deny, justify, blame and repent. His beloved common law wife Chim (Maria Silverman) darts like an unrelenting shadow through the recesses of his mind, reminding him of the promises he never kept.
His mother (Stephanie Berry) drifts in and out of his dreams and thoughts, a reminder of the countless times he had disillusioned her. Both women skirting over the negative, preferring to recall the good moments — seeking the return of the man they believe he is. There are moments of creativity, abstinence and joy when B is on top of the world and then the dream ends. B knows the cocoon of drugs he has encased himself within will only temper the pain briefly. He sees his body disintegrating and knows he is beyond doctor’s care. He rails against the injustice and reality of the world created by white society. He knows he can fly high, if only they would let him. Only if they would allow him to play what he hears in his head. Chords which he finally builds via extended intervals such as ninths, elevenths and thirteenths, something untried in jazz before. B realized that the twelve tones of the chromatic scale could lead melodically to any key, thus breaking the confines of simpler jazz soloing.
Is white society responsible for his decline, his self-imposed flagellation and drug induced mutilation? Or does B bear the responsibility for his own weakness? Haunted by the specter of his musical buddy and friend Kid Welpool (Jay Ward), who is a mirrored reflection of Bs own addiction, B admires Kid’s musical chops but is disgusted by his drug use. A drug use that no longer allows Kid to perform as he once could. Of course, B does not see that he too is heavily influenced by the drugs that are sapping his own strength, ravaging his body and stealing his genius until it’s too late. It is only at the 11th hour that B seeks to take the cure.
For all his fame and the famous people he co-mingles with, B feels alone. His body is revolting against him and his musical genius fading in and out in flashes of memories and moments of clarity. It is during those moments that B seeks to do something that will signify his success and be a memorable gift to his mother; a moment of grandeur to reward those who have supported him and his career. Enters jazz enthusiast Baroness Alexandra Isabella von Templeton, – one of the wealthiest women in the world with ties to the Rothchilds. Baroness Zan (as she is fondly called) is based on Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter of the Rothchild family (born Kathleen Anne Pannonica Rothschild). Her stamp of approval matters to B.
Portrayed by Terria Joseph, initially the Baroness comes across as just another useless member of the idle rich; so nasal she can only be described as a one of the hoity-toity snubs whose noses are so far up in the air, they lose sight of the real world existing around them. To the Baroness’s credit however, she recognizes the brittleness of her upper class existence and seeks to save her soul. In the end, she does so admirably.
Ezra Barnes rounds out the cast in this melodrama of greatness, madness and lost chances.
“Cool Blues” continues its run at the New Federal Theatre, Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center Recital Hall Theatre, located at 466 Grand Street in Manhattan until April 3. Performances of COOL BLUES will be Wednesday Through Friday evening at 7:30pm, Saturday at 3pm & 8pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
If you are a Charlie Parker fan you will want to see this production.