To Shtick or Not To Shtick

Isn’t that always the question?

I could lie and say that the reason we do comedy bits, costumes, signs, singalongs, whatever, in our shows–is solely because we want to make jazz performance kid-friendly.  That is one reason, no doubt.  But the truth is–I enjoy it too.

There, I said it.  I’m renouncing the Marsalis Oath for Preserving the Solemnity of Jazz.  I actually enjoy the shtick.

When I was preparing last year’s season, and timing myself as I ran around the corner to put on the gloves, cape, and mask that transformed me into Darth Vader, I remember thinking to myself, “Now this is finally too far over the top.  I’m going to get so sick of doing this a hundred times.”

But all it took was doing it once in front of an audience of kids, and it became my favorite part of the show.  C’mon, who doesn’t want to be Darth Vader?  Who doesn’t want to point menacingly into the audience and growl “Luke….I am your father.”  Who doesn’t want to say to the Chick Singer, “I find your lack of faith…disturbing.”  Who doesn’t want to pull off the mask to reveal a second, even more revolting one to the absolute horror of a roomful of elementary school students?  Who doesn’t want to do that?  You?  Come off it already.  You know you want to do that.

Well, maybe you don’t know.  But try it once, and you’ll find out.

Every season has its own shtick potential, and some are better suited than others.  Fats Waller was an obvious winner, when you’re playing songs like “Your Feets Too Big”.  I went to the outlet mall and found a pair of Size 20 tennis shoes, which I determined by slipping them on over my own shoes.  So at that point in the show, I didn’t have to take off my shoes, just slip the 20’s on over them.  Then I took a walking solo through the audience–kind of like walking in flippers.  It’s a wonder some poor child was not trampled underfoot.

Harold Arlen was also a good one, since he wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz.  We pretty much behaved ourselves until the Oz medley, which I had the ever-beleaguered Chick Singers finish by cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Some of them got into it.  I’m not sure  Mady Kaye ever forgave me, though.

Other bits arose spontaneously, unscripted, but became part of the show nonetheless.  Like Randy Zimmerman becoming RapMaster Z and delivering a bit about the role of the instruments in the band.  Or James Polk pretending to doze off while playing a triplet riff in the right hand until a band member came over and ‘slapped’ him awake.  Or Michael Stevens laying flat on the floor with his upright while continuing to play a solo.

As trumpeter Gary Slechta once said to me during just such a moment, “A shtick is born!”

This year we are presenting the music of Miles Davis.  Now I’ve got to take a step back from shtick and say we owe it to ourselves and the audience to present this music well.  And in the case of Miles, that means it won’t be a gimmicky show.  Because we don’t want to overshadow the artistry and the legacy of Miles with a lot of shenanigans.

Not a lot–but we’ll still work in a little.  C’mon, think of the children!  But no Darth Vader, I promise.



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