Photo: Jeff Lorch

Jelly’s Last Jam

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Right at the start, a gurney with a body draped in a coroner’s sheet; no question where the next two and a half hours are going. Jelly Roll Morton (John Clarence Stewart) is in Purgatory. But, let’s call it The Jungle Inn, a lowdown club “somewhere’s ‘tween Heaven and Hell.” He will be judged by the Chimney Man ( Cress Williams), a menacing figure who confronts Jelly at every turn about his braggadocio and exploitative history.

Jelly’s Last Jam premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1991. It was a hit in Los Angeles then moved triumphantly to New York, where it won several Tonys. Two themes predominate, but music and dance occupy center stage. It is not clear how closely George C. Wolfe’s book adheres to Jelly Roll’s history.

His birth name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, a creole name. His stage name (slang for vagina) erased that history but he clung to his light skinned, creole identity with its intimations of superiority. His father left when Morton was about three years old and his mother died early in his life leaving him to be raised by a grandmother, Gran Mimi (Karole Foreman) who emphasized the importance of skin tone and all things French over anything African American. They were free from before the civil war. She threw him out of the house at age 14 when she learned he was playing piano in a brothel, African infused music at that. Yet he never abandoned her prejudiced values.

As we learn in Wolfe’s story, Jelly Roll Morton is a classic narcissist. Listen to him and he was the center of the jazz world. He proclaimed himself the inventor of jazz . He was not. He influenced it. He poo pooed his jazz contemporaries. He used people and always claimed he was the victim when things did not go his way. He was incapable of empathy.

After he was kicked out of home, Jelly banged about the country, riding the rails with his best friend Jack the Bear (Wilkie Ferguson III), a loyal, congenial dark skinned man whom Jelly called nigger. As Jelly rose he kept Jack down. My language is raw as is that on stage. In 1991 there were no trigger warnings. The blunt language makes its point with strength. The result is a powerful picture of intra racial tensions. Jelly was emotionally abusive to Anita (Jasmine Amy Rogers) a powerful and beautiful woman for whom he lusted and who gave him an early career start in her club. His behavior was fundamental to his character.

This is not the original Mark Taper production. It is not clear how much has changed in this Pasadena Playhouse original production. The sets are elaborate and flex to keep pace as his history unfolds. Listening to some remastered recordings of Jelly Roll reinforced my sense that what we are hearing on stage here is more big band than the real Jelly Roll Morton sound which was more crisp and frankly more toe tapping worthy. It is not clear what is really meant when the program credits Music by Jelly Roll Morton and credits Luther Henderson for “Musical Adaptation and Additional Music.”

Whatever the drift from the original music or libretto, The Last Jam is entertaining. The original featured choreography by Gregory Hines. There’s lots of tap dancing, but this production attributes it to Dell Howlett … not quite Hines, but entertaining. Doron Butler is excellent as Young Jelly; maybe the best dancer on the stage. Other outstanding performances include a sinister Cress Williams, lovely and strong Jasmine Amy Rogers as Anita, and operatic Karole Foreman as Gran Mimi. Will you end up humming any tunes? I doubt it. I doubt you will remember much at all but you are likely to smile and tell a friend, “it was entertaining.”

Karen Weinstein

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