An old pairing: Laughter and jazz
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Nov. 9, 2012
In the 1960s and ’70s, jazz and comedy were interconnected art forms. Richard Pryor opened for Miles Davis at the now-defunct Village Gate in New York, and comedian Redd Foxx was known to pal around with the jazz cats of Los Angeles. Audiences enjoyed laughing at jokes and seeing world-class jazz in the same evening. Likewise, comedians found that jazz audiences eagerly awaited a punch line just as they might the apex of an instrumental solo.
That relationship changed in the 1980s with the explosion of stand-up comedy clubs. Clubs became jazz clubs or comedy clubs, not both. Musicians and comedians hungered after their own spotlights and audiences followed.
Performing in jazz clubs “was notoriously the sketchiest gig for a comic,” says actor/comedian David Alan Grier, who will host an evening of comedy and jazz Sunday at the Kennedy Center.
Grier says this attitude continues today. “When you go to see Wynton Marsalis, you don’t expect to see Chris Rock opening, because those things are separate,” he says. “Comics on Comedy Central would just be like, ‘Why are you playing? Just be quiet and let me tell my story.’ ”
It was Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s jazz adviser, who came up with the idea of reuniting comedy and jazz. Since taking on that role almost a year ago, Moran has taken it upon himself to give audiences a fresh jazz experience. Recently he opened the Supersized Jazz Club, a listening hall with a dance floor in the Kennedy Center’s Atrium.
Moran says there’s a reason why comedy and jazz work well together. “When a comedian is onstage, they’re telling a joke, and they have to pace themselves on how they tell it, which word goes where,” he says. “They’re carefully unfolding this joke. And if they unfold it just right, in front of the right amount of people in the right place, it’s like maximum potential. It’s the same thing with jazz.”
Moran knew about Grier’s appreciation for jazz, and so he approached the actor backstage at a performance of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway production that closed in September (Moran’s wife, Alicia Hall Moran, was in the cast with Grier). They ended up talking over lunch about reviving the relationship between jazz and comedy.
Together, they decided to make the evening interactive. “It seems so strange to me when art is viewed like art. Whatever it is -- jazz, opera, popular song, theater -- there’s something presented on a stage, behind a glass, and we’re very silent and we look at it and quietly leave the room. . . . No. I want you to be involved and to live it. To live these performances.”
Sunday’s show features comedy by Grier as well as Faizon Love (“Couples Retreat,” “Elf”) and Marina Franklin (NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”). The stand-up will be punctuated with short musical interludes by an ensemble led by Moran. The band is a mix of New York and D.C. musicians, including Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Marshall Keys on alto sax, Donvonte McCoy on trumpet and Bob Stewart on tuba. Moran says in addition to the instrumentals, he expects different kinds of interaction between the musicians and comedians.
Grier, for example, is likely to sing a couple of tunes with the band, and Moran’s group will play some atmospheric, score-like music to accompany some of the comedians as they tell jokes.
Neither Grier nor Moran has done anything like this.
“What I love about collaborating with artists like Jason is, we both do what we do,” Grier says. “But in terms of this gig, [I love] throwing away all the expectations and trying to bake a cake together.”