Jelly’s Last Jam Review – The End is the Beginning

John Clarence Stewart and Cast of JELLY'S LAST JAM - Photo by Jeff Lorch
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Who was the “inventor of jazz?” If that’s a question which you’ve given some thought to, then you might consider Jelly Roll Morton, even though he was self-proclaimed. To quote music critic   in 1902, “Jelly Roll Morton did himself a lot of harm posthumously by exaggerating his worth…Morton’s accomplishments as an early innovator are so vast that he did not really need to stretch the truth.” Regardless of the roots of jazz, however, Jelly Roll remains one of the jazz greats. From a book by George C. Wolfe with music by Jelly Roll Morton and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, JELLY’S LAST JAM gives the lowdown on Jelly’s life – and even a little bit after. JELLY’S LAST JAM premiered in Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in 1991 and soon found its way to Broadway in 1992 starring Gregory Hines, who won a 1992 Tony Award as lead actor, along with Tonya Pinkins as best actress in a musical. The 1992 production also received six Drama Desk Awards. In 2024, the Pasadena Playhouse brings the spirit of Jelly Roll back onstage, a place he always loved.

JELLY’S LAST JAM Cast – Photo by Jeff Lorch

The time is July 10, 1941, the evening of Jelly Roll Morton’s death. The place is Los Angeles at the Jungle Inn, a lowdown club “somewhere between Heaven and Hell.” The tale spans 1890, the year of Jelly’s birth, to his death in Los Angeles in 1941 at the age of 50. Ferdinand Joseph La Mothe (John Clarence Stewart with the young Jelly played by Doran Butler) was born to a wealthy, cultured Creole family in New Orleans. He was trained in classical piano, but – by the age of 14 – he was playing jazz piano in a brothel and had renamed himself Jelly Roll (African American slang for female genitalia). Around the same time, he was disowned by his proper Gran Mimi (Karole Foreman) and found himself on his own.

Janaya Jones, Naomi C. Walley, and Cyd Charisse-Glover – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Jelly’s adventures led him all over the U.S. as his music caught on and made him a rich man. But riches come and go in the dog-eat-dog world of music, especially in New York City. Along the way, Jelly meets, greets, loves, and hurts lots of people in his quest for fame and fortune. But JELLY’S LAST JAM, evident from the title, focuses on the end of his life as he sees family and old friends for the last time and remembers the events that made him who he became. Warts and all. From his conflicted relationships with his lover Anita (Jasmine Amy Rogers) and best friend Jack the Bear (Wilkie Ferguson III) to his egotism and racism towards friend and foe, Jelly must relive the high and low points of his life, courtesy of the Chimney Man (Cress Williams), a netherworld guide and concierge of Jelly’s soul who won’t sugar coat Morton’s life or let him off the hook. As Chimney Man so aptly notes, “In telling the story of Jelly, the story of jazz, ya gotta have grit to go with the gravy.”

Cress Williams – Photo by Jeff Lorch

Skillfully helmed by Kent Gash with musical direction by Darryl Archibald, JELLY’S LAST ROLL features a strong cast, both in vocal and dance chops as well as dramatic power. Chills will run up and down your spine as they belt out songs that made Jelly famous (coupled with some traditional blues and occasional melodies by Luther Henderson, King Oliver, and Walter Melrose). And let’s not forget Edward E. Haynes, Jr.”s spectacular scenic design, Samantha C. Jones’ glittery costumes, Rui Rita’s lighting, and Danny Erdberg’s and Ursula Kwong Brown’s sound as the story goes from turn-of-the-century times to the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the beginning of the World War II era. Dell Howlett’s choreography is energetic, complex, and dazzling as the onstage orchestra gives the rousing, often smokin’ music its just due.

John Clarence Stewart and Jasmine Amy Rogers – Photo by Jeff Lorch

JELLY’S LAST JAM will appeal to music history buffs, jazz and ragtime aficionados, folks who want to know what makes icons tick, and practically everyone else who enjoys music, dance, and spectacle.

Doran Butler and Karole Foreman – Photo by Jeff Lorch

JELLY’S LAST JAM runs through June 23, 2024, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays (7 p.m. on June 23). Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Tickets start at $44. For information and reservations, call 626-356-7529 or go online.


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