A few notes on the music of the play:
SIDE MAN is about jazz musicians: from their heyday, after the war, through the decline of the big bands and bop, through the rise of rock and roll, to the dark years of the seventies and eighties. A time when many great musicians cobbled together a mix of club dates, unemployment checks, and cash gigs in order to make a living. It is about the sacrifices the musicians, and their families made in service to the sidemen’s passion for the music.
It is also a play about the music.
From the first draft, I wanted the play to be musical. I wanted each scene to have its own rhythm, whether hard driving, or romantic, or mournful, or bluesy. Early on, director Michael Mayer and I discussed one major production question: should the actors play instruments, live, on stage? Michael argued the parts were demanding enough as written. The sidemen–Al, Ziggy, Jonesy, and Gene–age over thirty years in the course of the evening, and they grapple with harrowing emotional choices. Asking them to play like world- class musicians on top of this would be asking for the impossible. Especially because three of the four sidemen in the show are trumpet players. You simply can’t take a few lessons and fake your way through a trumpet solo–it is far too demanding an instrument.
They realized, then, they would need to have recorded solos that brought to life the characters, and the music of their world. With the help of two Sound Designers (first Roger Raines, and later Ray Schilke) I cobbled together a dream team of jazz trumpet solos.
They are supposed to believe the solos they hear in the play are those of the play’s titular sideman: Gene Glimmer–somehow he is Roy Eldridge, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan, rolled into one. Which is of course preposterous. But Genie is a beautiful player, a musician’s musician. And as jazz fans will tell you, on any given night, a true sideman can step forward and play a solo that will break your heart, or leave you breathless. Then he’ll sit back down, and blend in so well with the band, that no one but the other musicians will ever remember his name. For a sideman, the possibility of that solo, of that night, made everything else bearable.
About the songs:
I Remember Clifford–is Benny Golson’s memorial to Cliffored, and it is the first song they hear in the play. It is the ballad Gene is playing the moment his son Clifford, whom he named after Clifford Brown, enters the Melody Lounge. Says Clifford: “I walk in and I hear him before I see him. Playing a ballad. You could play me a hundred trumpet solos and I’d know which one was his. My father’s voice.”
Later in the play Clifford learns that even though he hasn’t seen his father in five years, his father plays the song every week. To which
Clifford replies: “Genie on a ballad, break your heart, every time.”
Rockin Chair–is the first solo Terry hears Gene play. She tells her son about it more than thirty years later, because the first night she heard Gene play, is the night she fell in love with him: “Gene couldn’t get me a ticket, so he met me at the stage door. He told me to stay in the basement–but I snuck upstairs and watched from the wings. (they listen with Terry to a soaring trumpet section, and soloing above them, a heartbreakingly beautiful solo) He has a beautiful tone.” From the moment she hears him play, she is hooked.
(I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance–The title alone makes this ballad right for Terry’s wedding night. A night, she tells Clifford about years later: Jonesy danced with me while Gene sat in with the band. Everyone cut in all night long. Not to dance with me, but to sit in with Gene and the band. Clifford Brown’s warm, knowing tone, and Richie Powell’s delicate piano intro capture the mixed emotions of the evening.
Dahoud–Ghost of a Chance ends, and Terry hopes Gene will dance with her. Instead he launches into Dahoud, an up-tempo, hard-bop number. Terry asks her protector Jonesy, “How do you dance to this?” He replies, “You don’t. You drink to it. That’s another reason why jazz is dying. Let’s go to the bar.”
At the bar they marvel at Gene’s solo (they should, it’s Clifford Brown). Jonesy explains, “Every solo has a beginning, middle, and end when he plays.” Terry asks, point blank, “Do you think he’ll make it?” And Jonesy tells her the truth: “Honey. He’s made it. This is it.”
Cristo Redentor–Jonesy has been arrested for dope, and he’s spent the weekend in jail. He now limps on stage to meet Gene and they understand that his life as a trombone player is over. It is the moment in the play when they first understand the suffering and sacrifices that are part of the sidemen’s life.
Donald Byrd’s stunning gospel work also plays the show out at curtain call.
Land’s End–This great rhythm section (Max Roach, Richie Powelll, George Morrow) helps drive the opening of the second act. The trumpet/saxaphone duet feels intense, the melody complicated and moody. Before a word is spoken in Act 2, the atmosphere has been established: On stage they see the same apartment, ten years later, with ten more years of inherited furniture, broken lamps, tchotchkes… Laid out on the couch is a very pale, seemingly dead Gene. Dressed in a tuxedo. Arms folded over his chest. The apartment is still. Dark.
Chelsea Bridge–Michael Mayer felt that, if they were going to use trumpet players to give musical voice to Gene, Ella’s voice could stand in for Terry. In this almost other-worldly version of the Strayhorn tune, Ella’s haunting, wordless intro captures Terry on a night when she feels alone, and desperate, and on the edge of darkness.
A Night in Tunisia–The side men’s careers are in twilight. Packing up after a long, miserable club date, Al pulls a cassette out of his pocket: “Dig this. Jonesy gave me this tape, it’s going around. Brownie. Clifford. Some guys in Philly found this live recording of him, from the night he died.” And with that begins one of the scenes I’m most proud of in the show. For almost four minutes, dialogue stops, and the side men, and the audience, listen in awe to this astonishing solo. As they watch Al, Ziggy, and Gene listen to phrase after phrase, chorus after chorus, they finally understand their profound connection to their music, a connection they can only share with each other. Many thanks to the production’s director, actors, sound and lighting designers for making this scene a true tribute to Clifford Brown’s transcendent solo. And yes, sadly, it was recorded on the night he died.
Time–is a mournful Clifford Brown/Sonny Rollins duet that underscores a fifteen year time passage on stage. Clifford, his childhood over, watches Terry and Gene circle each other warily in the living room: In time to the music, and his parents’ final slow dance, Clifford explains: “I kept hoping they’d be like old Generals at war, finally realizing they’re all they have; that their memories of how they tried and failed to kill each other would eventually give them a bond. It didn’t work that way.
It Never Entered My Mind–Mile’s muted horn is Genie’s last solo in the play. Clifford listens to his father on-stage, and delivers the play’s coda: “When he’s up there, blowing, he’s totally in touch with everything that’s going on around him. Ziggy bends a note, he echoes it instantly. A car horn sounds outside, he puts it into his solo, or harmonizes under it, a second later. I used to wonder how he could sense everything while he was blowing, and almost nothing when he wasn’t. Now I just wonder how many more chances will I have to hear him blow. If I have kids…
These guys are not even an endangered species any more. It’s too late. There are no more big bands, no more territory bands. No more nonets, or tentets. No more sixty weeks a year on the road. No more jam sessions ’til dawn in the Cincinnati Zoo. When they go, that’ll be it.
No one will even understand what they were doing. A fifty year blip on the screen. Men who mastered their obsession, who ignored, or didn’t even notice anything else. They played not for fame, and certainly not for money. They played for each other. To swing. To blow. Night after night, they were just burning brass. Oblivious.
— Playwright Warren Leight