Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Jazz Heaven" cast grows for new production on Sunday, October 20 at Ethical Society

For singer Wendy Gordon, jazz heaven keeps getting bigger all the time.

What began for Gordon (pictured) as a way to fulfill assignments for a couple of college classes has turned into a full-fledged musical revue now in its fourth edition, "A Jazz Heaven: Entertaining Around Heaven All Day," which will be performed at 4:00 p.m. next Sunday, October 20 at the Ethical Society.

Like previous versions of the show, "Entertaining Around Heaven..." features songs originally made famous by a roster of iconic performers, backed by a live band and held together by a storyline and Gordon's original poetry. First presented in August 2009, the "Jazz Heaven" series was conceived when Gordon retired from the postal service and began taking some college classes.

After writing about about Billie Holiday for a poetry class and then performing the biographical work for her acting class, Gordon realized she might done have something more than just completed her class projects. "From there, I thought 'This would be a good little play,'" she recalled. She expanded the poem into a script that also included material about Ella Fitzgerald, and the staged the first version of the show, "When Billie Met Ella," with a three-piece band at the Kranzberg Arts Center.

Since then, the concept has continued to grow as Gordon has added new material and cast members for each subsequent staging. This time, she'll sing songs associated with Holiday and Nina Simone, with longtime St. Louis favorite Jeanne Trevor once again playing the role of Ella Fitzgerald.

They'll be joined by singers including Joe Mancuso (Frank Sinatra), Kecia Davis (Phyllis Hyman), Jeff Hardin (Marvin Gaye), and Eugene Johnson (Bobby "Blue" Bland/Albert King), with Sheila Reed as the narrator. The band will feature Arthur Toney (keyboards), Al Barnes (drums), Willem von Hombracht (bass), Adrian Bowers (trumpet), and saxophonist Kendrick Smith, who also has a speaking role as Charlie Parker.

While the "Jazz Heaven" series has provided Gordon with her first experiences as a head writer and impresario, she did get some useful preparation working with the late Mae Wheeler, aka "Lady Jazz," who devoted much time and energy in the latter part of her career to organizing showcases for an eclectic range of local talent.

"I was on six of Mae Wheeler's 'Diva' shows, and from that I learned a lot about how she was trying to promote local artists in St. Louis. It's so hard to get recognition, and this is something to showcase our talent in St. Louis," said Gordon, who helped Wheeler behind the scenes with ticketing and promotion as well as performing on stage.

Gordon said she also admired Wheeler's devotion to young talent, and now is consciously following her example by adding a bit of youth to the "Jazz Heaven" roster of veteran performers. "Kendrick Smith is the first of the young artists we are presenting, and I plan to have at least one in every future production," she said.

Tickets for "A Jazz Heaven: Entertaining Around Heaven All Day" are $27.50 in advance, $30 at the door, and are on sale via Metrotix and Afroworld. For special rates for groups of 10 or more, call 314-838-9198.

Photo of Wendy Gordon as Billie Holiday from the "Jazz Heaven" Facebook page.

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