A new one-act play by John Gleadall and Greg Mosse, Lady of Jazz is an uplifting evocation of 1920s New Orleans and the gripping story of Honey Grey, lead singer in her daddy’s band.
But Honey is living a lie…
The play made its debut earlier this year at Ink Festival at the urging of its artistic director Julia Sowerbutts.
Playwright Greg says: ‘It had such an amazing reception - there were people standing up and crying at the end, so I think we can say we’ve won if that happens.’
Greg and songwriter John are regular collaborators - their musical Team! a show about ‘football, friendship and the passing of time,’ was recently performed at Portsmouth Guildhall’s new studio space.
Lady of Jazz features eight original songs, inspired by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and more, and it reaches an extraordinary dramatic climax that coincides with one of the most important moments in 20th century American history – the start of the Great Migration out of the south.
Greg counts himself a big fan of early jazz: ‘Anything from Miles Davis onwards, it seems to me that jazz became something that turned in on itself for performers to enjoy for themselves, whereas it started facing outwards and arose out of this melange of gospel and slave music and rhythmic folk music.
‘I have a wonderful quotation from Jacques Brel the amazing Belgian singer-songwriter about really good songs - the balance between rhythm and melody is right, the rhythm drives it, but the melody takes you with it. And early jazz really does that.
‘I’m talking 1920s, which is when Lady of Jazz is set. In the early ’20s it’s very square, as the musicians call it, very little syncopation, and performed very straight.
‘Our show, as it moves through the whole of that decade, the songs moves from that very square jazz, to a more swung jazz in the late 1920s.’
The writer recalls how the idea for the play first struck him: ‘One of our colleagues, a wonderful writer and performer, we helped her record a set of what were essentially tribute performances to early 1920s singers like Bessie Smith. Natasha does these fantastic performances where she imitates their intonation and delivery of their songs.
‘We created a CD of those performances and I remember saying to Natasha one day in the studio: “There must be a show we could create by daisy-chaining these songs together”.
‘And then I got home and started plotting it and working on it out of my own imagination.
‘I started writing my own lyrics that fitted the plot more closely and I abandoned the idea of using these old songs, and I went with these new songs – but they’re all based on something - there’s a rag time, a Charleston, a square blues, a swung blues, all of these 1920s genres that we imitate in the show.’
And of course the casting of Honey Grey is crucial, as the role requires someone with both the singing and acting chops to hold a one-woman play together.
‘Michaela Bennison was trained at the Royal Academy of Music, so there’s that formal training but she came to me on recommendation as an actor from another colleague.
‘ She’s just been playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. So she’s a superb performer with superb training.
‘The final part of the jigsaw is our colleague Tony Pegler. I live in Chichester, but am from Leigh Park. John’s originally from Sheffield, but has been in Havant for 40 years, and Tony is also Havant.
‘Tony’s not just a fantastic jazz pianist performer, but he’s also a really good arranger. So if John plays the guitar and I sing him the song, he can turn that into a sophisticated piano score, which is a huge advantage. And in this show Tony is on stage with Michaela performing – although he doesn’t speak.
‘It’s a one-woman show with songs, rather than a musical.’
The performance will also include a post-show discussion hosted by best-selling historical fiction author Kate Mosse – who also happens to be Greg’s wife.
‘I have to make sure I get all of my historical facts spot on,’ adds Greg. ‘Could you imagine what it would be like, being married to Kate, if I got something wrong?’ he laughs.
Lady of Jazz
The Spring Arts Centre, Havant
Friday, September 13