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Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
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As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
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 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
DSCN0026 A Special Award for Eulypians
Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
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Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
DSCN0019Offering up praise songs to the man of the hour
The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
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 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro

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Musicians came from everywhere
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Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany

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Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue

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Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon

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Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice

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Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt

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Patience Higgins and the Boys

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 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
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Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

 First Choice

Trading twelves with the Drummer

 

 The Singers!

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Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……

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 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
 
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
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Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike
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 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!

Wailing!

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Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!
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 The Man of the Hour!

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Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience

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