I almost always arrive super early for shows, especially if they are general admission, so that I can choose my seat based on comfort, convenience, sight lines – that kind of thing. Once I’m settled, I sit back and watch the rest of the audience arrive. And what I’m noticing is that there are a lot of white faces at this show. There is one black man, a few Asian and Latino folks, and a good gender mix. But most of the audience is white. That’s going to be important a little later.
The show I’m seeing, The Holler Sessions, is a one-man show that sort of acts as a crash course in jazz and the blues. Written and performed by Frank Boyd, the conceit of the show is a man waking up under his desk at a radio station and beginning his shift, playing snippets of classic blues songs and talking about them. The room is a cluttered mess filled with packing boxes and filing cabinets full of oddities. When he first wakes up, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was watching – he puts on some blues and starts making coffee with toilet paper instead of a filter. He says, “Listen to your forefathers” before doing some strange stretching exercises. He spikes his coffee with whiskey and pulls some fruit out of a filing cabinet.
He plays some of Ben Webster’s “Blues for Yolanda” and opens the line up to callers to win fake prizes from BBQ joints featuring double entendres about meat. When we arrived, there were slips of paper on the chairs telling us to silence our phones but to leave them on as we would have the chance to use them, and this seems to be it. The first person who figures out the game is the one black face I saw entering before the show, a man who sat on the narrow balcony to my left, his voice traveling through the darkened space in a way that is actually oddly effective at creating the feel of listening to a call in radio show. He asks some trivia questions; the man doesn’t know, but plays along. He wins the imaginary prize.
The show itself doesn’t have a narrative so much as it has a flow. He plays a piece of music, or a specific riff, and talks about it, each piece building on the last, continuing the story while changing it and moving it to new places, sort of like a jazz improvisation. He talks about the collaboration of the music and how, “we collectively create a thing of beauty.” It’s a quote from musician Max Roach talking about his chosen form, but it could just as easily apply to those who create theatre. This is clearly this man’s love letter to a type of artwork that resonates with him deeply.
When he plays Charlie Parker’s “Koko,” he says we need to focus, and not be distracted and the light go down and we are left with only music, and the occasional flash of a phone screen from those in the crowd for whom lack of distraction is frustratingly impossible. Eventually his laptop screen provides some small illumination, and we see him jamming out like a man lost in a fantasy, wild air drumming and his head nodding and shaking with the rhythm.
The next section is very interesting to me – he talks about formal education, and how that can actually detract from the enjoyment of the form. He talks about going to see a concert given by some students and describes them as “just pink, soft, fluffy little BFA larva.” The professor is sitting proudly in the front, beaming at the accomplishment he sees before him. The DJ is disappointed. He reflects, “Maybe some of the adversity that the form needs has been excluded.” This is the first moment where, intentionally or not, he introduces the idea of privilege. And again, that will be important. Later. For now, I want to stay in the flow.
But despite what’s missing from the student performance, the DJ doesn’t feel that his time has been wasted. He says, “See it all. Build your context.” I thought this was an especially important statement. So often, we tailor our entertainments to things we feel confident that we’ll like. I tease my fella pretty regularly about his reliance on critics to decide whether or not he wants to see a movie; if you only see things that are “pre-approved” for your tastes, how can your tastes grow and develop. It’s why I like to see all kinds of theatre. I don’t love every kind of theatre, but I usually find some element of any production that I can place my focus on. I’m building my context.
After talking briefly about the interview between Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker (link above), he puts on Ben Webster’s “Tenderly.” He is very clearly emotionally transported by this piece, and if it’s “just acting” I can tell you he’s damn good at it. He says, “A guitar will never have the emotional potential of a horn – no way!” as the notes float gently through the air, some of them as thin as the reed on Webster’s saxophone.
There is no question: this is what longing and desire sound like.
After this the tone changes and Boyd introduces a section he calls “Current Events.” He’s got three magazines that he flips through, throwaway pop confections that have nothing of substance and appear even less substantive when placed in context of the rich and complex music the show has presented. The narrator opines for all of the things he learned in school that don’t serve him, don’t resonate with him.
“The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Why do I know this?”
“Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. What the hell is Myrrh? And why would a baby need Myrrh?”
“Stop, Drop, and Roll.”
It’s a decisive point for him, and he talks about all of these as the things you learn before you learned about Duke Ellington.
“This is us. It has all the layers.”
As this song plays, he reads a section from a Rolling Stone magazine about Justin Timberlake’s “comeback” with the single “Suit and Tie.” The author of the piece talks about the changes that have been made to JT’s “brand.”
“Brand. I’m tired of this shit. What’s Louis Armstrong’s brand? What’s Duke Ellington’s brand? What’s Nina Simone’s brand?” He names some of the other greats that my pen wasn’t fast enough to catch, then continues, “Unparalleled fucking genius. That’s a brand.” He disparages Timberlake for being nothing more than a salesman, then says, “Let’s have some dead air.”
A long, awkward silence follows.
When he finally clicks a key on his laptop, it plays a section of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” He says, “This is the section of the show called The Folk Scare. It’s over now.”
He’s clearly playing with us, but its another of those moments that brings forward the layers of privilege that exist in this piece.
He gets back on track with another of the great, Louis Armstrong, playing West End Blues.
As the song plays, he remembers something and starts rummaging through the packing boxes stack behind him, knocking them over but eventually emerging victorious. he’s found another issue of Rolling Stone. On the cover of the one he was reading from earlier, it featured a cover story called “Eminem: The Road Back From Hell.” The one he’s found features the lead singer from Green Day, with the same title – “The Road Back From Hell.” He jokes about how what he’s learned is that if you end up in hell, just look for a road. Get on that road and you’ll come back from hell, Rolling Stone will take your picture, and “They’ll love you. If you make it…if you make it.” Then he plays Nina Simone.
As much as I’m transported by this show, I’m also feeling the snobbery that underlies it, as if Boyd feels the need to denigrate other forms and styles of music in order to celebrate that which he cherishes. Is most pop music on par with the likes of Nina Simone and Duke Ellington? Of course not. But what Boyd is doing in this piece is trying to present jazz and blues as if they aren’t a part of the fabric of popular entertainment, but somehow above it. He bemoans the lack of commercial success for these artists that he loves, but then attacks commercialism.
And this is where all of those moments where we’ve banged up against privilege have lead to: I realize that this show is not just a love letter to jazz and blues, but very specifically a white man’s love letter. As much as he talks about adversity, about the pain and the struggle that brings about this sort of musical expression, there is a certain amount of privilege that has to exist for a show like this to even happen.
And that’s not a bad thing. It’s a missed opportunity to confront privilege, to encounter it and explore it in a way that challenges that sort of privilege, but it doesn’t make the show any less heartfelt or moving to experience. It’s a white man’s love letter to a predominantly black art form – and that’s ok. It’s not appropriation, and it’s not exploitation.
What I’m about to say is going to be hard for some people to hear. And that’s ok too. But I think it’s important to say: white people get to have loves and passions and appreciations just like everyone else. They get to have struggles. They get to have doubts. They get to have pain, and they are allowed to seek out music and art that moves them, resonates with them, that reflects those pains and doubts. It’s allowed. It’s necessary.
Much of the “discussion” that arises whenever appropriation comes up is a sort of blunt instrument accusation that aspects of culture are picked up without any knowledge or appreciation for the culture from which they came. No one could see this show and doubt Boyd’s deep love and appreciation for the form, or his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the musicians and their craft. And even without that, I can’t help but subscribe to the idea that art is open and potentially accessible to anyone. You don’t have to like it or appreciate it in the ways that others tell you. If something about it moves you, then it moves you. One would hope that it moves you enough to learn more, to engage with the context in which it exists, but what that engagement looks like is deeply personal. And it should be. If I’m in a museum and I see a piece of art and it moves me, I might naturally want to learn more about the artist, how it was created, the cultural context in which it existed. All of those things can enrich the meaning for me. But I might not. I might choose to just be moved, to appreciate that moment and reflect on how that piece of art fit into my life, into my context, and stop there. Either way is ok.
This is different than someone throwing on a kimono and imitating a geisha for Halloween. It’s about finding art that moves you, and the thing about artistic expression is that it’s not always very good at staying where people think it’s “supposed to.” I get that we need more representations of artistic vision from all different communities – that is vital and necessary. But when we start trying to police who gets to be inspired by what, that’s where I find a problem. I want there to be so much more diversity in the stories and perspectives that are being shown, but one of the roadblocks to that, besides all of the systematic biases and the subjective evaluations that privilege white perspectives over others, is the way that all of us who belong to minority communities throw up these territorial boundaries around the arts and music and contributions of “our people,” as if the appreciation of someone from a different community, especially a dominant community, somehow lessens the impact of that expression on our own lives and psyches.
Although there were moments where I felt almost uncomfortable with Boyd’s inability to interrogate his own privilege, in the end I was entranced by his deep love and appreciation for jazz and blues and I felt like I had a new understanding and appreciation of a style of music that had never really spoken to me before. That’s the thing about the arts that we love: they are meant not only to be loved, and loved deeply, but to be shared.
Tags: A Contemporary Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre Seattle, ACT, ACT Seattle, Ben Webster, Blues, Blues for Yolanda, Champagne Dreams Productions, Charlie Parker, Do I Move You, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Duke Ellington, Frank Boyd, Holler Session, James Taylor, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jazz, Jazz & Blues, Johnny Hodges, Koko, Louis Armstrong, Max Roach, Miss Jaye, Nina Simone, Rolling Stone, Tenderly, West End Blues, World of Champagne, You've Got a Friend