Grammy Award–winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling brings his world premiere performance of The Big Blind, a radio-style musical drama, to Rose Theater on March 1–2. Co-written by Elling and Phil Galdston and featuring NEA Jazz Master songstress Dee Dee Bridgewater, this performance is like nothing seen before at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Adding to the evening’s outstanding cast are Broadway legend Ben Vereen and renowned theater and screen actor Clarke Peters (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Wire; and Treme). Bringing the swing and swagger is drummer extraordinaire Ulysses Owens Jr.’s New Century Jazz Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Guy Barker. (More guests to be announced.)
Dee Dee Bridgewater plays the femme fatale in this performance. The three-time Grammy Award winner and Tony Award–winning artist’s career has spanned four decades. Right now she is flying high, moving into the upper echelon of jazz vocalists on the planet. She has performed with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzy Gillespie. Most recently Bridgewater has been working with trumpeter Theo Croker.
Elling gives us an idea of what to expect: “The performance is set in mid-20th century Chicago. I hope we capture the flavor of the 1950s and the characters that are trapped in circumstances beyond their control. That seems to be the essence of it. Of course, the music is most important. I’ve been writing lyrics to the compositions of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Joe Jackson, and a bunch of new compositions that we tried to tailor to the needs of our production. I should mention our director, Terry Kinney. He and I connected a few years ago while he was with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He’s a tremendous help and is going to help me pull this across the finish line, come hook or crook.”
Elling met up with conductor-arranger Guy Barker about ten years ago when they worked on productions for the BBC. “He and I have become great friends. He really does have such a deep knowledge of 1950s-style orchestration,” explains Elling.
“What we’re creating is a radio-style drama that features music bespoke for the occasion. Yes, it’s a real play, but also a real concert. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by extraordinary collaborators on this project.
“This is an idea that I’ve had in my mind for 15 years at this point. I grew up making music at the Green Mill in Chicago. The Green Mill has a host of ghosts; Al Capone had his own booth. You could sit where Al Capone sat to be able to watch both doors. There were famous tunnels under the Green Mill during Prohibition that were used to bring booze. The Green Mill Gardens was an extraordinary performance site. Ella Fitzgerald sang from behind there, so did Sarah Vaughan.
“Also at the Green Mill is the ghost of Joe E. Lewis, the up-and-coming jazz singer of the time. He was filling the room every night, and when his contract was up, he was told by then-manager “Machine Gun” McGuirk not to move onto another site. In those days you didn’t leave one Mafia arm for another Mafia rival. So about five weeks later a gang broke into his room to make an example of him and beat him to a pulp. He survived and had to choose what to do since he could no longer sing. His throat was injured in the attack. He became a comedian, doing novelty tunes. He became the patron saint, if you will, of the Rat Pack. He wrote so much of their material and their jokes. Frank Sinatra was a devotee of the drinking habits of Joe E. Lewis. There was a movie featuring Sinatra that was based on the Joe E. Lewis story called The Joker Is Wild.
“We decided to put it into a 1950s era. It suits the kind of music I wanted to use, in the sense of Duke Ellington compositions, Mingus, and the other composers I mentioned, and to add our own songwriting. The Joe E. Lewis life story was the impetus. This performance in Rose Theater is a story with so much Chicago history in it, but more importantly to me were the questions of what happens to the artistic temperament if the avenue of expression is obliterated?”
Elling and his strong crew promise an evening of surprises and inspiring multimedia entertainment. “I’m so proud to have the connection to Jazz at Lincoln Center, and they’ve allowed me to do several different kinds of performances. But this is really the largest, most extensive and complicated production I’ve done there.”
Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.