Monday, 7 August 2017

Coventry Mystery Play


The recent reissue of the Storyville album The Jaywalker, anthologised in Duke Box 2 (reviewed this issue on page 18) set me thinking about the play for which Ellington composed this music. In an issue focused so strongly on the theatre and with 2017 being the fiftieth anniversary of the work’s alleged première at Coventry Cathedral in July 1967, it seemed appropriate to look a little further into this theatrical piece.

    Research into the background of the play reveals the fascinating confluence of high art and high living centred around the ‘bright young things’ of the twenties and thirties who could well have stepped from the pages of a novel by Evelyn Waugh.  

    The Jaywalker was written by the former actress Barbara Waring who eventually became Lady Cunliffe through her second marriage to the chairman of British Aluminium, Geoffrey Cunliffe. Her first marriage was to the theatrical agent Lawrence Evans and Barbara Waring was steeped in theatre. She had appeared in Nöel Coward’s Cavalcade and graduated to work in the film industry, her most famous appearance being made in the film In Which We Serve. She was also an habitué of art critic Arthur Jeffress’ social circles, going on from clubs such as the Blue Angel to frequent parties he held at Orchard Court. Was it at one of these gatherings she first heard Ellington’s music? The critic was used to auditioning ‘hot’ records he had brought back from America on such occasions in the company of fellow jazz enthusiasts like Constant Lambert. When Ellington first visited Britain in 1933, he had been lionised by and later met teenager Renee Gertler, neice of the artist Mark Gertler. As Mrs Leslie Diamond, in the 1950s Renee entertained Ellington at her Park Lane home and it was through this mutual friendship that Ellington came to write the music for Waring’s The Jaywalker.

In his book Duke Ellington’s Music for the Theatre, John Franceschina describes the plot of The Jaywalker as follows:
“The play tells the simple story of a boy named Mac who wants to stop the traffic on the highway so that people on one side of the road can have the freedom to cross to the other side. After being bullied by a gestapo-like policeman, and witnessing the callousness of the crowd at the sight of a hit-and-run accident, Mac decides to take it upon himself to stop the traffic by running out into the road where he is ‘crucified between a lorry and a Rolls Royce.’ ”

    The tune Mac (which means ‘Son of…’) subsequently found its way into Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert as TGTT or The Biggest and Busiest Intersection. Whilst the connection to Ellington’s sacred work is, of course, obvious, I’m sure there are connections to be discovered, too, to the narrative drive of other Ellington works as diverse as Monologue (Pretty and the Wolf), A Drum is a Woman and The Golden Broom and the Green Apple, all works which might be said to address the idea of congress in the widest sense of the word: the nature of the exchange between man and woman; man and God – Morality and mortality, if you will. I’m sure there’s an academic paper in there somewhere… Duke Ellington and his Orchestra recorded the music for The Jaywalker in a single ‘stockpile’ recording session in New York City on 23 March, 1967. The first recording of TGTT was made by Ellington alone, however, at the piano almost a fortnight earlier in Paris. The performance was part of a tape, Pianists in Paris play for Billy Strayhorn, made for Ellington’s composing and arranging companion who was seriously ill during this time with the cancer that would cost him his life. Little wonder that TGGT and the moving Meditation would become centrepieces eventually of the Second Sacred Concert.

     What of the play itself, however, for which the music was destined originally? John Franceschina writes:
    “… for some reason by 17 July, the author had not yet received permission from Ellington to use the score in production. With Duke’s touring schedule during the summer of 1967, it comes as no surprise that Lady Cunliffe had difficulty in pinning him down. Ultimately the production proceeded as planned, received warm notices, and except for the echoes of the score in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert, disappeared forever.”

It remains a mystery still…

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