Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Gig: Jazz Film to Book Musical

Is a band really a band if they never perform for an audience? It is a relevant question even to professional musicians who dedicate great time and talent to rehearsal bands. For so-called kicks bands, the question can be ever more pointed. In The Gig, screenwriter-director Frank D. Gilroy poignantly dramatized the frustrated dreams of a group of amateur Dixieland jazz musicians who pursue a moment of professional glory through a legit paying gig at a second-rate (at best) Catskills resort.

You probably have not seen The Gig, since it only received spotty distribution when it was released and quickly went out-of-print on VHS, with no DVD afterlife announced as of yet. One of those who did see the film was Douglas J. Cohen, who adapted it into a book musical, which has had various Off-Broadway and out-of-town incarnations, but has yet to crack the Great White Way. The do have a cast recording though, selections from which were performed live at the Lincoln Triangle B&N Monday night.

Gilroy’s movie is an under-rated minor classic of jazz cinema—a valentine to those who play for sheer love, even if their passion exceeds their talent. Used-car dealer Marty Flynn (Wayne Rogers after MASH but before becoming an investment guru) uses his fast-talking skills to get the band booked at Paradise Manor, a resort run by “that Prince of Inn-Keepers” Abe Mitgang, who will explain to you your room isn’t too small, he just uses thick wallpaper.

Eventually Flynn cajoles the reluctant holdouts to take a chance, except their bassist Georgie Pappas, who will be checking into the hospital for a serious procedure, but delivers a carpe diem speech to the band that perfectly expresses the spirit of the film. As a replacement, Flynn hires sight-unseen Marshall Wilson, played by Cleavon Little, who turns out to be an African American jazz modernist who does not think particularly highly of Dixieland or of amateurs taking jobs away from professionals. When they finally play, it turns out Mitgang loves his rimshots but hates the “Biff-Bam-Bang,” as he calls their hot jazz, insisting they stick to sweet society numbers.

At first the gig looks like an utter disaster, but as Wilson starts to gel with the group and their brand of jazz proves popular with patrons, it looks like jazz will carry the day. Then the ugly realities of the music business intrude and the middle-aged musicians learn the hard way what it means to be a professional musician, ending on an appropriate, if bittersweet grace note.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including real-life jazz musician Warren Vaché (with whom the fictional Wilson sometimes tours), who deserved further acting gigs based on his performance as Gil Macrae, a lady’s man who chose to marry into money rather than pursue a promising musical career. Vaché’s cornet is also heard on the soundtrack, supervised by drummer Herb Harris, which also featured clarinetist Kenny Davern, trombonist George Masso, and bassist Milt Hinton. For Dixieland, the Gig Band’s music is swinging and often bluesy, particularly the concluding number. Not only should the film be available on DVD, the soundtrack ought to be available in some format as well.

As of now, if you want a piece of The Gig, only the musical cast album is available. Appropriately, the production heard on disk was produced by the York, which makes its home below St. Peter’s, the jazz church. Despite being about a Dixieland group and employing the instrumentation of a traditional jazz combo, the score for Gig the musical is more show tune than hot jazz. Based on Monday’s performance, it still has its moments. The initial introduction-of-characters number gives way to “Farewell Mere Existence, Hello Jazz,” a plucky little flag-waver that features a neat “fugue” where the band scats their instruments in what could be the most solidly jazz moment of the score.

Cohen sounds reasonably talented as a songwriter and he has excellent taste in source material. The Gig is an understated film that does not rely on star power, but it is still difficult to envision other actors in those roles, even after getting a substantial taste of the stage production Monday. Of course, for most people that will not be an issue should The Gig ever make it to Broadway or a rep theater near them.