When thinking of John Coltrane or Miles Davis, it's likely that masterpieces like "Blue in Green" or "My Little Brown Book" will come to mind. Given both of these talents' statuses as musical geniuses, it's hard to imagine either of these artists during periods of struggle but The Robey Theater Company captures that in "Birdland Blue."
The theatre is filled with clouds of fake cigar smoke and tables and bar stools reminiscent of the Birdland Jazz Club, the swanky jazz club that became the center of the music scene in the 1950s. In August of 1959, Davis and Coltrane already earned their status as household names, yet such immense success didn't shield them from hardship.
Despite the biographical nature, the production is anything but a documentary piece. This one-act allows viewers to follow protagonist Miles Davis through a typical night in the Birdland Jazz Club. Over the course of the night, conflicts between Davis and his bandmates unfold as Coltrane and Julius "Cannonball" Adderley begin to contemplate leaving Davis's sextet.
Though what proved most moving was baring first-hand witness to Davis's struggles with his personal demons such as heroin addiction. Drug use is a well-known yet often misunderstood aspect of the 1950s jazz world. Davis himself touched on this in "Miles: The Autobiography," where he admitted, "guys like Dexter Gordan, Art Blakey, J.J Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself -all of us–started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff." Albeit heartbreaking, it was illuminating to learn about not only these musicians' struggles with drug addiction, but the stress and depression that triggered it.
Playwright Randy Ross Ph.D. was successful in creating a firsthand look into what a night with Davis may have looked like, yet what was perhaps the most awe-inducing aspect of this production was the musical accompaniment. Jazz classics like "In a Sentimental Mood" were done justice with a live musical performance by bass player Marion Newton, percussionist Ricardo Mowatt, and saxophone player and the playwright himself.
One of my reservations regarding this piece is the casting. While Marcus Clark-Oliver gave a brilliant performance as Miles Davis, there is a sense of suspended belief in order to accept Clark-Oliver as the American icon. Defining features of Davis included his almost eccentric look, short stature, and dark skin; starkly contrast from the handsome, tall, light-skinned Clark-Oliver.
Because this piece is a collection of memories over the course of one night, it proves hard to become invested in the different dramatic conflicts that play out throughout the piece. But the brilliant sound and set design, combined with Ross's well-written dialogue and exceptional performances from the cast make "Birdland" the perfect piece for jazz enthusiasts.
"Birdland Blue" runs through May 12th at The Los Angeles Theater Center. Tickets start at $20 and are available here.