James Pearson and WordTheatre presents ‘And All That Jazz’

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WordTheatre, a company specialising in live readings of stories by actors, presented ‘And All That Jazz’ at the St. James Theatre as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. With a total of nine actors on stage, the evening comprised extracts from letters, poems, essays and anecdotes, with James Pearson – leader of the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars - providing an improvised piano score.

Early in the show, Lucy Cohu read a piece written by Anne Shaw Faulkner for the August 1921 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. Posing Faulkner’s question “Does jazz put the sin in syncopation?” Cohu went on to present a stern outline of jazz’s “evil influence on the young people of today”. Jack Shepherd then gave an evocative retelling of the time a teenage Billy Taylor saw Jelly Roll Morton play in 1937. Billy and his friends, who were into Lester Young and studying Schoenberg and Bartók, went to old Jelly’s club for a few laughs, but were quickly singled out as young hipster upstarts. Jelly turned to them from the piano and said, “you punks can’t play this!” before launching into a big swinging ragtime number. Billy and his pals had to agree with him.

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Following poems by Frank Marshall Davis and Ntozake Shange, the first half concluded with Ginny Holder, Okezie Morro and Polly Gibbons reading ‘The Reunion’ by Maya Angelou. Angelou’s powerful short story tells of a former maid turned pianist, who sees the white daughter of her previous employer in a jazz club with a black man. A highly charged unpacking of the emotional backstory follows, which was brought to life by a stirring central performance from Holder.

Throughout, Pearson provided a well-judged bluesy soundtrack, giving plenty of space to the actors. Often subtly referencing the tunes and musicians mentioned in the texts, he also knew exactly when to pull back and let silence lend an added emphasis. The show did, however, have its moments of unevenness, in many ways due to the diverse range of material. The inclusion of a couple of sung numbers felt like something of an afterthought and some texts fitted the overarching narrative better than others. Elsewhere the odd American twang would slip back occasionally into British intonation.

The highlight of the night came right at the end as Joseph Marcell (known to many from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) stole the show with his reading of Louis Armstrong’s reply to a piece of fan mail from a Marine stationed in Vietnam. Armstrong’s letter of 1967 is warm, heartfelt and hilarious, and was delivered with great panache by Marcell. Signing off, Satchmo wrote to the soldier: “And now I'll do you, just like the farmer did the potato – I'll plant you now and dig you later.”

– Jonathan Carvell
– Photos by Jahan Khan