- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman recently finished writing their first "jazz song cycle." "There was a phone call from Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center about two years ago," Mrs. Bergman says. "He said, 'Would you guys be interested in writing a jazz song cycle for the Kennedy Center?' I said, 'Sure. What's a jazz song cycle?' He said, 'Anything you want it to be.' 'Oh,' I said, 'Is there a particular composer you would like us to work with?' He said, 'Anyone you would like to work with.'"

The result of that phone call is "Portraits in Jazz," scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Friday in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. The evening will feature performers such as Patti Austin, Lillias White, Janis Siegel, Steve Tyrell, Carl Anderson and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

Since the Bergmans have always wanted to work with composer Cy Coleman, Mrs. Bergman says he was a natural choice as a collaborator. Mr. Coleman is one of the most versatile craftsmen in the music industry today, working with Broadway shows, motion pictures, recordings, television and the concert stage.

"Cy's roots are in jazz," Mrs. Bergman says. "We wanted somebody who understood jazz, but who was a real composer and songwriter. We called him and asked him the same questions Billy asked us."

As the trio proceeded to write material for the program, Mrs. Bergman says they realized they were creating portraits of members of the jazz community. For instance, "Biography," which will be performed by Miss Austin, was modeled after legendary trumpet player Chet Baker.

"We don't mention his name," Mrs. Bergman says. "It's a story about a young man who grows up in small town, Middle America, who plays in a high school band. One day, he gets a car with an AM-FM radio and hears music he never heard before and realizes he wants to play a trumpet."

Mr. Bergman says the songs communicate how jazz musicians think and feel. Most jazz musicians play out of love, he says.

"They love to play," Mr. Bergman says. "They love to improvise they love what they do. They are at it a lot. They practice a lot, after hours. They go play in jam sessions. There is a great joy, and that's not dealt with enough."

Mr. Coleman says he hopes the songs not only reflect jazz musicians, but also people such as the hat-check workers in nightclubs and regular patrons at the bars. He says expressing concepts through melodies never has been a struggle for him.

"I've often thought of music as a language you speak," Mr. Coleman says. "I think in it, in any situation. I respond musically. It's like anything, like writing a novel. You write a paragraph in a novel because you have yourself in a certain situation. In music, I have myself in a certain situation where the situation demands a certain kinds of emotion. I work through that."

The artists who were chosen to perform the compositions were cast in a manner similar to a Broadway musical. Since the show is partly theatrical, the Bergmans and Mr. Coleman wanted performers who could not only sing, but also exhibit stage presence.

Miss Siegel, who is a nine-time Grammy winner with Manhattan Transfer, plans to perform "59th and 3rd." The song is about a big-band musician who plays on a street corner in New York City. He stopped getting calls for work, but still loves to play for the public.

She also will sing "The Double Life of Billy T," which is a true story about jazz musician Billy Tipton. Miss Tipton was a talented musician who found that she couldn't get work as a woman, so she masqueraded as a man for most of her life.

Miss Siegel is pleased with the diversity of the songs and the quality of the lyrics. She says jazz is based on personal expression.

"Jazz is such a quintessentially American art form," she says. "It really is the music for individuals. For me, you sit and watch a musician discover themselves by improvising."

Miss Austin, who grew from a 1950s child star into a 1990s multimedia artist, is singing "An Autumn Afternoon," which reflects a conversation between a younger jazz singer and an older one.

"I don't know what I'm looking forward to more, the rehearsal or the show," Miss Austin says. "It's always exciting and challenging to be involved in a project from the very beginning."

Derek Gordon, vice president for jazz and education at the Kennedy Center, says commissioning the program was important because jazz is an essential part of American culture. He hopes the songs will allow the audience to reflect on how jazz has progressed throughout the years.

"Jazz is America's classical music," Mr. Gordon says. "It's treasured all around the world."


WHAT: "Songs for a New Millennium: Portraits in Jazz"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Friday

TICKETS: $27

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324


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