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Plowshares Theatre explores ‘all that’s jazz’

By |2011-05-12T09:00:00-04:00May 12th, 2011|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

Thornetta Davis, Kimmie Horne and Audrey Northington in Plowshares Theatre Company's "Jazz: The Birth of the Cool." Photo: Gary Anderson

More than just a musical genre, jazz is attitude. Legendary saxophone player Charlie Parker may have put it best: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Sit down for a performance of “Jazz: Birth of the Cool” and you’ll find it’s not what you sing; it’s how you sing it. This brand new cabaret musical is the resurgent Plowshares Theatre Company’s fresh contribution to a cultural spring in Detroit.
Long before Motown put us on the musical map, the Paradise Valley neighborhood jumped to the sound of this quintessential American art form. Six of the “local vocal” geniuses in the genre have united to revive the glory days of jazz in Detroit. Kimmie Horne, Armond Jackson, Augustus Williamson, Audrey Northington, Brent Davin Vance and Thornetta Davis, backed by a tight quintet, lead us on a decade-by-decade trip of 20th Century hits. “Fats” Waller and the Gershwins, “George and his lovely wife, Ira” (seriously, that’s how a British radio announcer introduced the “words & music” brothers!) are heavily represented in the early part of the show. The number that really catches the ear, though, is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” originally written as a snazzy little jazz piece, only to find immortality as a half-tempo ballad. It’s all in the attitude.
My “doh!” moment (thanks, Homer S.) came in the second act, when we learn how pervasive jazz became in popular music. One can hear its call in swing and big band and pop music from the ’50s; it’s even there in the samba rhythms of Henry Mancini’s “Meglio Stasera,” featured in the 1963 film “The Pink Panther.” Selections range from the breezy sophistication of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” to the grim reality of Billy Holiday’s “Forbidden Fruit.” A highlight of the show is the unexpected “a cappella” rendition of Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take Five,” when the combo does just that. The singers mimic instruments with vocal virtuosity alone and the harmonies are glorious.
The beautiful Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center is Plowshares Theatre’s temporary home, and it’s a unique addition to Detroit’s roster of unconventional performance spaces. For this production, the low ceiling and glowing walls help set the mood of an intimate night club. The space is, however, all reflective surfaces, and sound balance is a problem. Solos, duets and trios come through crystal clear due to a nice balance of miked vocals with the band, but nothing can deal with the echoes when the ensemble really gets the joint jumpin’. After hearing this space at its most boisterous, I look forward to experiments in more conventional theater.
Jazz is a disciplined art form for undisciplined artists. There is raw, creative tension between setting rules and testing limits. There is a remarkable symmetry between wild flights of fancy leashed by the insistent rhythm of percussion and bass. In its spontaneity there is a wild aroma of creative possibility; anything might happen! So what can we take away from Detroit’s century-long love affair with jazz? It’s attitude, man, it’s all in the attitude.

‘Jazz: Birth of the Cool’
Plowshares Theatre Company at Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through May 15. $25-$30. 313-506-2858. {URLwww.plowshares.org}

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.