Burning Brass

The story of jazz and its men sounds right

A strong monologue, very much like a steaming jazz solo, should always seem improvisational, even if it's not. Like music it moves and gathers momentum and, in doing so, meaning. No long-winded plot summary or pedantic sermon, the final monologue in GableStage's production of Warren Leight's Side Man does its job. It gives us a final and necessary insight. Clifford (played by Oscar Isaac), the neglected son of a sideman, or in layman's terms a jazz musician, watches his father, Gene (played by Mark Shannon), cranking out a trumpet solo, what Clifford calls "burning brass." After having been estranged from his father for several years and never having had a real relationship with him in the first place, Clifford stands and takes in what will probably be his last opportunity to see his father play his trumpet. His father is playing "I Remember Clifford," a tune by Clifford's namesake that, he learns, his father plays at every gig.

This scene is not touching because we discover that even someone who is a poor father can still truly love his son. Leight's Tony Award­winning play is not about happy endings or saving graces. The beauty in the final monologue is in Clifford's ability to see and appreciate his father doing the only thing he knows how to do -- play music. Clifford's dad feels closer to that trumpet than his own son. There's no denying it. Gene is good at one thing, as his son marvels: "He's amazing. He hears a car horn and puts it in his drum solo."

Side Man depicts two little-known worlds: the world of the jazz musician and the world of the jazz musician's family. Sidemen went from band to band making a living picking up gigs. While they didn't attain the fame of Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, they battled the same demons -- booze, drugs, the corrupt music industry, and economic hardship. Side Man gives a face to those men who helped people like Frank Sinatra sound great. These men were virtuosos in their own right, and they played jazz just for the love of playing jazz. Through a series of smooth transitions narrated by Clifford, we move from 1985 back through the '70s, '60s, and '50s, then back again to the '80s. Like the classic point-counterpoint of jazz, these transitions add more depth to the script, giving a historical panorama to the lives of the sidemen, from the 1950s, when they had gigs every night of the week, to the 1980s, when they're an endangered species.

Side by side by sidemen: Oscar Isaac (left) and Mark Shannon
Side by side by sidemen: Oscar Isaac (left) and Mark Shannon
Through July 16 at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables, 305-445-1119

From Clifford's narrative sequences, the not-so-pleasant world of a jazz musician's family is poignantly revealed. If there's any question that a musician obsessed with his music is the same as a junkie with his fix, it's answered by the end of Side Man. Clifford even has the sort of endearing, nondescript personality of the child of an alcoholic who is used to playing the role of adult. As the street-smart waitress and band girlfriend Patsy (played by Ellen Rae Littman) comments, "You looked 30 when you were six, and now that you're 30, you look your age." There is no dramatic resolution in Side Man, and Oscar Isaac plays his role accordingly. In fact there is an underlying deterioration, a progressive lack of victory. No one comes along, realizes Gene's a musical genius, and records him for posterity's sake. The mother doesn't join a 12-step program and start volunteering at a local homeless shelter, and Clifford does not unglue himself from the family mess to ride off into a happy mental-health horizon.

A period piece that is well done submerges the audience in that time period but does it in a way that we become unaware we are watching history. The GableStage production is such a piece. Warren Leight has done his homework in writing the script. Heroin is called "horse." Divorce is still illegal in the eyes of the Church and scandalous enough to drive a woman to a strange city as it does Terry, Clifford's mother (played by Judith Delgado), and musicians still used the word chops for lips. The design team at GableStage -- costume designer Daniela Schwimmer and scenic-and-lighting designer Jeff Quinn -- has given this script a visually convincing environment in which to be performed.

Clifford is not only the narrator, his is the voice of reality in a world of dreams and chaos. It's no surprise that his tone is often sarcastic. At the beginning of their relationship, Terry and Gene decide to get married, and Gene promises her a glamorous wedding with all the works. The scene ends with them embracing, and Clifford steps in to tell what really happened: "So a week later, Mom made a lasagna, and they married in the apartment." Throughout, understated testimonies like this one create a contrast that is both poignant and humorous.

For all of its dramatic potential, some places in Side Man fall flat emotionally. Gene doesn't seem to distinguish himself from his fellow musicians soon enough for us to emotionally grasp the gap that lies between him and Clifford. It is only toward the end of the play that we begin to understand the degree of his inability to do anything but play music. Gene's role is difficult to portray because he is by nature distracted and emotionally distant, but developing his character earlier would add to the drama.

As Terry, Delgado captures an interesting moment in history for women -- the late '50s and early '60s was a time when women were neither independent nor submissive. In her younger years, Terry is the type of Catholic girl from a working-class family who can say motherfucker five times in one sentence and still bowl you over with her almost stupid naiveté. Delgado is no stranger to strong female roles, as we have seen in her outstanding portrayals of painter Frida Kahlo and fashion diva Diana Vreeland. She is a master of throaty, gravelly, whiskey-laden rage, but in Side Man some of her rage seems uncontrolled. She goes from being in love and eternally hopeful to old and bitter almost without a transition. Because the play traces three decades, more gradation in the characters of Terry and Gene would have given more emotional depth to the play overall, although together they are great. Their glaringly different personalities and temperaments make Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus look like a case study of June and Ward Cleaver.

While at times quite humorous and convincing as has-beens, Gene's fellow jazzmen -- Al, Ziggy, and Jonesy, (played by John Trapani, Kevin Reilly, and George Schiavone respectively) -- sometimes miss their marks. They talk the talk and walk the walk, but something falls flat about them, which shows in the scene when they get hold of a bootleg tape of a great jazz solo and are huddled around listening to it. They snap their fingers, punch each other in the arm, and make comments: basically a clichéd reaction. An audience wants to see something different from what he or she would expect, something that feels more authentic and gives us insight. There are other moments, though -- for example when Jonesy the junkie is in jail -- that do succeed.

The world of Side Man is a world of extinct creatures, but the emotions are very alive. The generally solid and strong performances throughout, particularly by Isaac and toward the end by Shannon, combined with vintage set design, costuming, and fine recorded music can trick you for a little while into thinking you're in a classic New York jazz joint, not in a theater.

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