Carter's Way and the Kansas City Jazz Scene
Peter Altman, Artistic Director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, made a good move when he championed the play Carter's Way into existence, along with Author/Director Eric Simonson who did several years of research and work. The KC Rep describes one of Simonson's early inspirations: "...for Oriole Carter, the brilliant saxophone artist at the center of the story, the mythic character Orpheus, a musician who descended into Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice."
Perhaps being a black jazz musician in the 1930s may have been like fighting demons in order to retrieve the love of one's soul--whether a woman or music. The play shows the tragedy, as well as the beauty.
Oriole Carter is a saxophonist with a slow, sexy playing style and a penchant for doing things his way in the mid-1930s. He blows his horn late nights at Planet Mars in Kansas City. He must fight his past, fight the intense dividers between blacks and whites, and fight the never-ending obstacles it takes to be with the woman he loves, a delicate, creamy white singer named Eunice Fey. Meanwhile, there are bigwigs, gangsters, recording managers, club owners, and peers trying to move him this way and that. All he wants to do is play his horn the way he wants to play it. He's not too keen on recording or live radio streams. He just wants to play his sax on club stages.
The play itself is sultry but genuine. Damon Gupton, who plays Oriole, gives a commanding performance. So do Walter Coppage, who plays owner of Planet Mars and announcer "Pewee" Abernathy, and Nikki E. Walker, who plays Oriole's confidante, ex-girlfriend, and pianist for the band. Kelly Sullivan, who plays Eunice Fey, really shines when she throws out her timid exterior when commanded to do an impromptu performance with Oriole.
Along with the brilliant acting is an awesome score by Darrell Leonard, who put together a band with legendary jazz musician Bobby Watson, who has worked with artists like Art Blakey, Lou Rawls, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Maynard Ferguson, and Wynton Marsalis. The music is pre-recorded (though the singing is live), but it certainly sounds real and has the audience pondering outloud during intermission: Is that live?
The play does an excellent job of showing the evolution of early jazz, from slower, romantic, bluesy horns to the eclectic and improvisational fast horns that broke out of arranged, repetitive cycle of chord changes. It is really the evolution of Oriole himself, and he begins impromptu horn at times, which is probably symbolic of not only his love for music and interests in the limits of his sax, but also of his desire to break out of expectations--from staying within racial bounds in relationships with others to following entertainment fads introduced by businessmen who have no interest in jazz but just want to make money. After all, as the play points out, recordings do not show skin color. Well, Oriole just wants to break out of the pre-arranged things: musically, romantically, and professionally. He wants to reach out but be free to be himself. He's sure that once you've been taught and molded to play a certain way, you lose yourself and forget how to be yourself.
Kansas City's jazz roots haven't been as popular as those of New York's or Chicago's, but popularity doesn't equal importance. In the 1920s and 30s, during Prohibition and the Depression, is when Kansas City developed a name in jazz. Thanks to a "sky's the limit" feel in good 'ol KC, and a richer economy than normal due to political endeavors of people like Tom Pendergast, there was a real permissive attitude toward clubs and partying. KC had a light swing, bluesy feel when it came to jazz. Speaking of swing, once again the music reflected the times: real-life Pendergast was a church-going man capable of swinging over to the nightlife and putting money into it, as was the fictional Pewee, in Carter's Way--the only difference in that Pewee was not a high-falutin' businessman but a short man (no matter how much he tried to stretch himself by hanging on tree limbs when little) interested in producing good jazz at his club.
In the play, there is a part where the band is playing at a club on the "edge" in Independence, Missouri, at a place called The Black and Tan. Names of places are no accident, mind you. But in reality, back in the jazz heyday of Kansas City, Charlie Parker would hang out at The Reno and listen to Lester Young and Count Basie. Audiences would sit on bales of hay and do the same at the Hey-Hay Club. These small clubs existed in the same neighborhood where we live, on streets like Holmes, Troost, and Cherry, but the recognized historical jazz point of Kansas City is around 18th and Vine. Here is where the Blue Room, Sunset Club, Panama Club, and Subway Club were, and the area is still packed with jazz lovers on the weekends. But in those days it gave birth to Bennie Moten, Piney Brown, Joe Turner, and others like Pete Johnson, Ohran "Hot Lips" Page, Mary Lou Williams, Julia Lee, James McShann, Claude "Fiddler" Williams, and Coleman Hawkins.
It's still cool to go down and get a plate of collard greens and sit in a smoky atmosphere listening to old jazz piping through the speakers or newer bands up on stage, around 18th and Vine. You can also try alligator meat at the Red Vine Cajun Restaurant and Jazz House, visit the Jazz Museum or Baseball Museum, among other things, but it takes an interest and soul to envision what used to be. Thanks to Carter's Way, an amazing artistic endeavor in itself but also a tribute to the Kansas City jazz scene, we can be reminded of musical and social boundaries of old--and how they were pushed and expanded.