Somehow, after all these decades, jazz is still polarizing. It has its evangelists—though the people on the front lines of spreading that gospel, FM jazz radio DJs, tend to be anodyne, sleepy personalities without much fire in their bellies—as well as its belittlers. The haters talk about jazz as alienating and pretentious, the musical equivalent of a blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice. I know one eligible New York bachelorette who says that when she goes home with a man, his chances of getting laid are severely compromised if he puts on a jazz record. To her, jazz is a character flaw.
That attitude, according to the radio-show host in The Holler Sessions at On the Boards—a solo performance in which actor Frank Boyd plays a volcanically enthusiastic jazz DJ in the middle of his show—is a mark of America failing itself. In one segment of a workshop production I saw, he reads through USA Today with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges's "Basin Street Blues" backing him up. Flipping through the paper disgusts him: "The Dow is down... Sports, who cares?... There's nothing here!" He backs the song up to the 5:50-minute mark, the beginning of Harry "Sweets" Edison's tender and exuberant trumpet solo.
"This should be our national anthem!" he exclaims in the spaces between horn lines, as Edison is taking breaths. "Fuck this Francis Scott Key bullshit! This is us! It feels like us! This should be playing before every ball game! We should all learn the chord progressions in kindergarten! Everybody can plunk along on something!" Then he puts a towel over his head and leans back in his chair, overwhelmed.
That sound, to him, is what's happening in America.
The DJ—who is never named—tells us nothing about himself except that he's new to jazz. Boyd is in the same situation. Until a couple of years ago, jazz was sonic wallpaper and Louis Armstrong was just the guy who sang "What a Wonderful World." But in 2012, he was in Kansas City researching a project with his New York–based theater company The Team. (Boyd has also performed with Elevator Repair Service, which last came to Seattle with its word-for-word production of The Great Gatsby.) He started talking to musicians and going to gigs, and he found that the experience was changing him.*
"One guy really tore me up," Boyd says. He'd walked into the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, saw an African American man holding a saxophone, and asked the question—which he admits is a little ridiculous—"What does jazz mean to you?"
"He looked at me sideways, appropriately," Boyd says, "took a big breath, and said, 'Come over here.'" They went into another room. "I will not try to rearticulate what he said, because it would be an abomination, but he explained to me how jazz was his connection to Africa, a place he has no other path to in terms of family and lineage... It was my emotional entry point into the whole project." Jazz, Boyd realized, was born out of "the worst thing our country has ever done"—slavery—"and somehow, to me, transcends all that but doesn't escape or deny it. It's all in there: the joy and the pain and the suffering."
After talking with Boyd for an hour, the ebullient DJ character of The Holler Sessions began to seem like a palpable extension of his own personality. (Though he says the character is also influenced by George Carlin and sports radio host "Mad Dog" Russo.) They're both brimming with life, occasionally at a loss for words when overcome by some memory or emotion, and fierce admirers of jazz musicians in a way that is anything but anodyne and sleepy. The Holler Sessions is not a know-it-all DJ dropping the occasional encyclopedic fact—we're watching a jazz evangelist in the process of being born, thrilling to the music in real time.
The character has an underlying urgency, like he's trying to tell us something and jazz is the vehicle at his disposal. "I guess there's something in this music that can better help me understand what I am as an American," Boyd says, sounding a lot like the DJ. "To disregard this music or not encounter it is a huge opportunity that's lost—for self-discovery. I don't know exactly what that might lead to, but I don't know who I am. I work in theater, I'm trying to earn the moniker of artist, I'm from Michigan. I know, like, six things about myself. But listening to this—there's something here that I need, and I don't know what that is yet. But it's important."
* For the record, I’m in Boyd’s camp, and my jazz conversion experience is one of my most vivid adolescent memories. I was a freshman in high school, deeply infatuated with a senior girl who was into Jack Kerouac, so I began a crash course in the Beats—and all Beat roads lead to bebop. Looking for some CDs to buy, I happened into Bud’s Jazz Records in Pioneer Square. The proprietor, Bud Young, and I got to talking, and he offered to take me to see—as luck would have it—Harry “Sweets” Edison play trumpet at Jazz Alley. Bud got us a table within spitting distance of the stage where that night Sweets—who worked for Count Basie, got his nickname from Lester Young, and played with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald—permanently changed the way I listened to music.