Novel nonprofit WORDTheatre® turns 20 this year, marking two decades of “making the world a better place – one story at a time.” This milestone will be celebrated on Saturday, July 22, at 8 p.m. at The Ford Theatre, 2580 Cahuenga Boulevard East in Los Angeles.
JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION, presented by WORDTheatre in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association (LA Phil), unites acclaimed actors, singers and world-class musicians on stage for an original biographical and historical journey into the world of jazz, paying tribute to such legends as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Arturo Sandoval, and Wayne Shorter.
As has been WORDTheatre’s practice with its many large-scale theatrical productions over the years, memoirs, biographies, essay excerpts, poems, lyrics, and historic musical performances will form the foundation for the program’s intersecting narratives that trace the cultural impact of jazz — from its roots in New Orleans’ Storyville, through the Harlem Renaissance, to the vibrant club scene along Central Avenue in Los Angeles, beginning in the teens and carrying through the 1940s.
Cedering Fox, WORDTheatre® founder and artistic director, and JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION’s curator, producer and director, shared, “We are thrilled to be returning for the third time to one of the country’s most beautiful venues, The Ford, and to be partnering with the LA Phil.
“It has been six years since we presented our sold-out original show, In the Cosmos, under the stars. It is exciting to be returning with an all-new original production that our gifted ensemble of actors, singers and jazz musicians feel so passionate about! WORDTheatre’s JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION promises to deliver a uniquely moving night in an historic setting.”
Central to JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION’s stories is the perseverance of its subjects in the face of racism, as well as personal and economic hardships on their journeys to their respective iconic statuses.
Flamekeepers in a sense, and icons in their own right, JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION’s esteemed performers include actors Keith David, Gary Dourdan, Lisa Edelstein, Jason George, Joseph Marcell, Reign Morton, Dohn Norwood, Miguel Sandoval, Antonique Smith, Tracie Thoms, Glynn Turman, and Michole White.
Dave Fennoy and Iona Morris are the narrators. The musicians include Starr Parodi, musical director and piano; Wayne Bergeron, trumpet; Terrace Martin, saxophone; Suuvi, cello; Nedra Wheeler, bass; Clayton Cameron, drums; and Kevin Ricard, percussion.
“Jazz is such a beautiful tradition that’s very distinctly American and really brought forth by African Americans here,” noted actress/singer Tracie Thoms, a series regular on the Apple series, “Truth Be Told” who has worked with WORDTheatre for 11 years and provides the voice of Nina Simone, navigating her highs and lows throughout the program.
“That form of storytelling, it’s so specific, and it’s joyful. It could be sad and be painful, but also very, very joyful, and a celebration of the human spirit. I’m so excited to be a part of it. It’s such a moving show.”
As the program’s celebrated artists grew in popularity, many, including Simone, challenged oppression and promoted equality in America while contributing to a multi-decade legacy of invention and creativity.
“She’s a completely singular talent and didn’t compromise at all,” remarked Thoms about Simone. “She did exactly what she wanted to do. In her civil rights moment, she was unafraid to speak her mind in a way and in the time that could have really gotten her hurt. She went forward anyway because her beliefs were so strong. So, I’ve always been inspired by her for that kind of fearlessness. She [felt] like freedom is living a life without fear.”
Freedom is inextricably tied to the art form itself.
Pianist Parodi stated, “Jazz is kind of freedom in a way. In jazz, every note is a chance to pivot and go somewhere, take it somewhere, and it’s such a metaphor for life, that you can do anything, and you don’t have to worry about being judged. Improvisation is really the freedom to just let your mind go and experience possibilities.”
Parodi, who along with composer Jonathan Sacks is orchestrating the show, has composed for and performed with some of the industry’s finest and enjoyed an incredible run as a member of The Posse, the house band for The Arsenio Hall Show.
“I really started out by playing jazz and gospel music and soul music,” Parodi reflected. “So even though I do a lot of different kinds of music, it’s a huge love of mine and kind of a touchstone of a place I go when I’m just trying to be deeply personal with my own self musically.
“To be able to collaborate with musicians that we’re going to be playing with and explore these songs and the stories behind them is really exciting and thrilling to me.”
Through the breaking of musical rules and societal barriers, JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION’s subjects developed an art that drew a significant, racially mixed, though still segregated, world-wide audience.
Even as the music was met at times with censorship and derision, the candid expressions of economic hardships, loss and relationship traumas resonated with generations, and its themes are still relevant today.
One of WORDTheatre’s founding missions is sharing the power of language and literature by bringing curated stories into under-funded schools with the help of dynamic actors.
Proceeds from JAZZ Re-EVOLUTION will support this in-the-schools program.
Also this year, the organization launched the WORDTheatre Campus, an all-in-one digital platform exclusive to high school and college educators and students who may access selections of filmed stories from the vast WORDTheatre archive accompanied by educational, peer-reviewed curriculum.
WORDTheatre has also launched a Go Fund Me campaign, partnering with the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center in Leimert Park to raise funds to bring 100 arts students from South Central – many who have never experienced a live show – to the one-night-only event, including dinner.
“Music can move you without information, just the music itself,” Thoms said. “But once you have the stories behind the music—and that comes from the written word, and therefore the spoken word and the live performance—it can just deepen your experience of songs that you’ve known your whole life.”
Media sponsors for Jazz Re-EVOLUTION include KJAZZ, KCRW, and KPCC/LAist.
To purchase tickets, visit wordtheatre.org.