By Jordan Wright
The pioneering influence that Charlie “Yardbird” Parker had in the world of jazz, blues and bebop in the mid-20th century is the most inextricable part of his legacy. Blowing new sounds from his alto saxophone, he crafted a sound so original and addictive that fans would do anything to “chase the music … just to hear what Bird heard.”
And every hall-of-fame jazzman and jazz singer of that era brought their craft to Birdland, the eponymously named club in the heart of Manhattan, where they could marvel at Parker’s signature technique: playing the higher intervals of a chord for the melody, then backing it up with double- and triple-time extensions.
Jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Stan Getz and Billy Eckstine played the club with Bird in those golden days. So did the divine divas — “First Lady of Jazz” Ella Fitzgerald, Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan and Peggy Lee — each bringing the music to new heights with their unique vocal interpretations.
In the span of a decade, Parker perfected a sound so captivating, so under your skin and bones, that it galvanized American music and helped break down racial barriers. White celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac became regular denizens of the iconic club.
In the world premiere musical “Ladies Swing the Blues — A Jazz Fable” at MetroStage, author, director and lyricist Thomas W. Jones ll and composer, arranger, pianist and musical director William Knowles, who co-wrote five of the show’s original numbers, have — through their divine collaboration — crystallized the essence of that era by portraying the on-stage and behind-the-scenes lives of Birdland’s leading musicians from those heady days.
Set in New York City, the story features four female singers: Roz White as Lady, Lori Williams as Ella, Yvette Spears as Sassy and Sandy Bainum as Peggy. Anthony Manough dons the role of Parker, better known by the nickname “Bird.”
The story begins with Parker’s untimely but not unpredicted death at the age of 30 at the Stanhope Hotel apartment of his friend, the Baroness “Nica,” scion of the Rothschild family. Parker had been living on the edge, battling addictions throughout much of his career. He’s got the “junkie monkey,” the ladies declare, trying to pinpoint what killed him.
“All jazzmen die a mystery,” Ella insists.
They recall his life and times through stories and song as his ghost visits them. If you like classics like “Fever,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” ad George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” — plus 23 other evocative jazz numbers performed up close and personal — this show is for you. The singing is mad crazy and the band, with its ripping solos, could uncurl an Afro.
To single out any of the performers as less than brilliant would be criminal. But it would be unconscionable not to spotlight Williams, whose scattin’ Ella blew the roof off the theater. And Manough’s octave-bending vocal range knows no boundaries. Highly recommended.
The play runs through March 17 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St. For tickets and information, visit www.metrostage.org.