Remembering Jelly’s Last Jam
A musical that opened in 1992, Jelly’s Last Jam,is one of those musicals that I stumbled upon more by accident than by any initiative of my own. I had gone to New York City to see something else, but that performance was sold out (I think it was Crazy for You). Since I was already in the TKTS line, I decided to see something else. I chose to see Jelly’s Last Jam and, though the college student in me knew nothing about the show other than its star Gregory Hines and the performance of “That’s How You Jazz” on the Tony Awards.
Jelly’s Last Jam employs the music of composer Jelly Roll Morton to tell the story of one of America’s driving forces in the world of jazz. Taking arrangements of Morton’s melodies and a few original pieces by Luther Henderson, Susan Birkenhead employed her lyric-writing magic to give these songs a voice. George C. Wolfe helmed the piece, directing and devising the musicals’ book. Hope Clarke provided choreography, and Gregory Hines and Ted L. Levy created the elaborate tap dance sequences.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (a.k.a. Jelly Roll Morton) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1890. He was a ragtime and early jazz pianist, who also was a bandleader and composer. Though jazz was mostly an improvisational form of music in its early days, Morton set to arranging and preserving it in notation. Jelly’s Last Jam sought to tell Morton’s story and speak to the innovations he brought to the world of jazz. The musical began with a dead Morton caught in limbo, taking a look back on his life. Guided by the mysterious Chimney Man, Jelly Roll is ushered through the truth of his reality, something he had candy-coated and altered as his life and career progressed. Jelly’s Last Jam took an unabashedly honest approach to telling the biography of man whose family rejected him, igniting a racism in him that led to betraying the black sound and steering away from it in his music.
George C. Wolfe staged Jelly’s Last Jam within an inch of its life. It was relentless, moving, magical and seamless. His work was nominated for a Best Director Tony Award and the show was nominated for the Best Musical prize. It won neither, but where it particularly impressed was in the performance of Gregory Hines who played Jelly Roll Morton. Hines sang, acted, and boy did he tap dance with a ferocity that captured the anger and frustration that was mounting inside the character. Also in the show were Savion Glover, Ken Ard, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ann Duquesnay, Tonya Pinkins (who would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical), Mary Bond Davis, and Keith David.