Side Man Riffs on an Obsession With Jazz

Side Man Riffs on an Obsession With Jazz A true jazzman can tell you where he was when he heard "Brownie" had died -- so says Warren Leight, who, in his play Side Man (at Roundabout's Stage Right), allows Clifford Brown one last solo. In those three-and-a-half wordless minutes, the famed trumpeter brings into focus and illuminates a smoke-filled demi-world of journeyman musicians who vegetate there in mellow shadows, "sitting as far away from daylight as possible."
From left to right: Frank Wood and Robert Sella; the company of Side Man
From left to right: Frank Wood and Robert Sella; the company of Side Man (Photo by Photos by Carol Rosegg)

A true jazzman can tell you where he was when he heard "Brownie" had died -- so says Warren Leight, who, in his play Side Man (at Roundabout's Stage Right), allows Clifford Brown one last solo. In those three-and-a-half wordless minutes, the famed trumpeter brings into focus and illuminates a smoke-filled demi-world of journeyman musicians who vegetate there in mellow shadows, "sitting as far away from daylight as possible."

This truly is a last solo, too -- a jam session in the back of a music store in Philly -- recorded June 26, 1956, the night Brown died in a car crash at the ridiculously early age of 25.

"That's when the heart went out of jazz," says the playwright. "Trumpets were the kings of jazz, and when you talked about that royal line, you went from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge to Dizzy Gillespie. Brown would have been next. He was doing things on trumpet no one had thought possible. He had a warm, lyrical side that people with explosive pyrotechnical chops usually didn't have. He could break your heart on a ballad, then outrun anybody on an uptempo number. Fans followed him around, recording him -- which is how this solo was caught. Artists record thousands of solos a year, and this -- recorded by chance -- feels like the voice of God, like it's on a spiritual plane we're not aware of. If that was the last trumpet solo he was ever to play, that's enough of a legacy to have left. When I was a kid, I remember it being passed around by guys, like scripture."

There's a scene to that effect in the second act: Three jazzmen huddle over a cassette, grooving to the last golden sounds of their god, and the Gospel According to Clifford brings them to life. Suddenly, you see where the passion is for Gene (Frank Wood) and Ziggy (Michael Mastro) and Al (Joseph Lyle Taylor) -- director Michael Mayer bravely lets the scene go the distance, mining the moment -- as their faces fill with a not-of-this-world euphoria. In old cliched movies, they'd be dope-driven -- and, indeed, Leight tosses in a token junkie, Jonesy (Kevin Geer) -- but here it's plain the drug of choice is their music. It's, alas, their end-all and be-all.

Which brings us to the other play inside Side Man. Act I depicts The Jazzman As Dinosaur -- a concise cavalcade of people pinning hopes on something as fickle as musical tastes; Act II is a painfully specific abstraction of that overview - The Jazzman As Absentee Family Man -- and here the dysfunction fairly gallops. Leight got out alive and wrote about it. "A lot of people have families with dysfunction in them. I was just lucky my family's dysfunction paralleled what was happening to jazz. While the family unit was declining, so was the jazz world. It gives both worlds a richer context. In that second act, it gets very quiet, then you hear people starting to cry. What that tells me -- and it's just something you always hear about writing -- the more specific the characters you create, the more real the world is they're in. After the play, people come up to me and go, 'That was my father up there,' and I say, 'What did he play?' They say, 'Oh, no. He was a stockbroker. He always hid behind a newspaper.' Turns out, a lot of people have had the experience of caretaking their parents, either as kids or now as adults."

Gene's last name, Glimmer, is -- yes, another way of saying Leight, but it's also an in-joke for jazz buffs who know the electrically named players (Bernie Glow, Harry Edison, Neon Leon), and there's more inside stuff where that came from, for the initiated. "It's been interesting to have musicians see the play. They all have the same pathology, the same way of seeing it. They only ask about who played the trumpet solo. I cared about the music, so I was involved in the recordings we used."

On a level of personal dissonance, the loudest and most conspicuous victim of Gene's one-note obsession is the flutist he marries, Terry. She comes to realize she's second fiddle to his trumpet -- a distant second, at that -- and this pain gives rise to banshee outbursts that constantly batter and bruise but never really penetrate his passivity.

"The more Gene spaces out, the more Terry acts out. It's a terrible dynamic. Each reinforces the other. As she gets louder, he tunes out more. At some point when you get operatic, you lose control and the demons take over. And if you spend too much time -- as Gene does -- in space, it's hard to come back. She's diving into a black hole, he's going out of orbit. They're suffocating in this claustrophobic living room -- and couldn't be farther apart. Gene's emotions are reserved for his playing. His most emotional moment is when he's listening to that Clifford Brown solo. Then, toward the end of the play, you realize he has felt all these things -- just on a very distant level. He's not on a day-to-day relationship with his feelings. You can see this with the others, too -- the guys are almost alive when they're listening to music or telling the stories about the days when they were in their prime. Very consciously, Michael directed the play so when it's anything other than music or stories for them, it's a half-life -- and that's frustrating if you're Terry."

Given its jazz milieu, Side Man is a Long Night's Journey Into Day. "Normally, the family-memory play is an earlier work," says Leight, who's 41. "I've been writing for a living for 20 years, and, in effect, I've been working on it all that time. But you only can do things when you're ready to do them. There are pieces in this play I took from short stories I wrote when I was 19 or monologues I wrote when I was 24. The unemployment office scene I wrote in 1982 as a stand-up comedy routine.

"The play was not really a play until we got to the workshop. I rewrote the second act overnight before the tech, adding the scene in the mental institution with the mother and the scene after that where the son kicks the father out of the apartment. Basically, I had avoided writing the big confrontation scene that every play needs and the scene that leads up to it -- the two scenes that made it a play."

There were other workshops for Leight to backtrack, rewrite, refine. "I would say catharsis rather than exorcism," he fine-tunes. "I felt more at peace as a writer after I finished this than I have ever felt before, and -- here's a weird thing about human nature -- I can feel that every night when I watch the play. The emotions come up for me, and I get to the last couple of scenes when it's 1985 and these guys are sorta at the end of their run. They come out, and you see what time has done to them. I feel a little bittersweet sadness -- and respect -- for them. They're still blowing, and I kinda like that that's the last time that we see them."

So far, Leight's father is the only family member to see Side Man. His reaction was generic -- a jazzman to the end: "The first thing he said was he was up all night, trying to figure out who the trumpet player was on 'I Remember Clifford.' "