Jazz has been called America's greatest cultural invention. With the blues at its core, it's characterized by improvisation and passion. Unfortunately, it may also be America's least understood artform—a situation Seattle actor Frank Boyd is on a mission to right with his one-man play "The Holler Sessions," which comes to the Ancram Opera House this month.
"I think probably the biggest misconception about jazz is that it's background music," says Boyd. "That and that it's 'intellectual' music—that you have to be in on some secret in order to 'get it'—and that it's not emotional music. I mean, there's certainly a lot of pop music these days that's not exactly what I'd call 'emotional' music."
Written, directed, and performed by Boyd, "The Holler Sessions" depicts a live radio show hosted by a crazed, cigar-chomping DJ named Ray. An evangelical jazz obsessive, Ray holds forth from his dingy garret/studio, championing with irresistible passion the music he sees as being marginalized. Free-riffing amid audio clips of Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and other immortals, Boyd's character not only pays tribute to the greatness of key jazz figures and their music; he also presents the music as a character itself, a portal to dealing with the human condition and other timeless truths. Think Philip Seymour Hoffman's depiction of rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous—but talking about jazz instead of rock 'n' roll.
"There's some truth in that, although [Hoffman's character] was more worn down from the business and mine is very animated," posits Boyd. "I'm a big fan of [sports radio personality] Christopher 'Mad Dog' Russo, which got me thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a DJ who talked about jazz with the same passion as Russo and some of these other sportscasters talk about sports?'"
"The Holler Sessions," a collaboration with Brooklyn experimental theater group the TEAM, premiered in 2015 and evolved out of a character Boyd played in another play the ensemble was workshopping in Kansas City, which, besides being Ray's fictional home and birthplace, is the birthplace of bebop icon Charlie Parker and the hard-swinging big-band style developed there in the 1930s by the bands led by Count Basie, Jay McShann, Andy Kirk, and others—an irony not lost on Boyd. "In that earlier play, I was playing this sort of political, talking-head character," he recalls. "But when I was there I started soaking up all of this Kansas City jazz history, and I reworked the idea [of the character] into a jazz DJ."
Going into the role, Boyd was, perhaps surprisingly, largely unfamiliar with jazz. "At first, I was afraid that would be a problem," he admits. "Even though I had gotten really into the music and was learning a lot as I got deeper into it, I had these nightmares of Wynton Marsalis or someone being pissed off and calling me out. [Laughs.] But it turned out to be helpful, because it ended up bringing a sense of discovery to what Ray does, which is something that's missing from a lot of jazz radio now. The best comments I've heard from people who've seen the play have been from the ones who say they literally started getting into jazz after seeing it. Right now, a lot of people in America are asking themselves, 'What are we?' To me, jazz represents the best version of what we are as Americans."
"The Holler Sessions" will run at the Ancram Opera House in Ancram on July 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, and 23 (Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $25. (518) 329-0114; Ancramoperahouse.org.