Recently I played and wrote arrangements for a project, a collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Stephen Sondheim’s body of great work. A strange pairing, you might think. And I went into it sort of feeling the same way. Odd as the concept may seem, the end result was a very successful and enjoyable experience, for the band as well as the audience.
When I first heard about the concert series, one of the “Encores!” presentations held at the City Center in New York, it was on our schedule for the year, and I didn’t understand that it would be a SHOW show. You know, a musical. Although I have played many musicals over the years, I have never been, for some reason, a big fan of this form of entertainment. I think it started when I couldn’t understand how, in the middle of a conversation, an actor would suddenly be singing. Never felt real to me. I wanted reality. Musicals aren’t reality. Or maybe they’re more real than anything else. I don’t know.
I do know that this gig at the City Center last month was very real. That reality started with the fact that Kay Niewood, our music coordinator, let me know I was to arrange four songs for the series, but because the director and conductor and actors were all still figuring out keys, lengths and formats I would have to wait. And wait. Now, on top of this I am behind, of course, in writing a commission by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which premiers in January (Presidential Suite), and has been a thorn in my side because I had planned to be much further along than I was. I am a procrastinator by nature. Now I am paying for this, as I am handed these extra assignments, taking up much of my free time filling in the spaces during the three-week tour Wynton’s Abyssinian Mass.
Okay, I got the first two songs: “Send in the Clowns” (One of Sondheim’s best known pieces) and “Who’s That Woman?” Good. Now I could start. For these, as they were instrumentals (no singing) I had a bit of leeway to do what I wanted. The first thing I did, and I didn’t set out to do it, it just sort of happened, is that I re-harmonized “Clowns” - made a kind of new little piece out of it. Something we jazz musicians tend to do.
Just after turning in the chart to Kay Niewood I happened to chat with the great arranger Rob Mounsey, and he pointed out that the key to the phrase re-harm is the word “harm.” Not exactly what I wanted to hear at that point. I started to wonder if I had done something unacceptable, perhaps sacrilegious, maybe even illegal, by rewriting this classic piece.
Well, I reassured myself that, hell, we’re a jazz band, jazz musicians, and this is what we do. They must be expecting this kind of thing after all. Then I found out that Stephen Sondheim would be there. Great. I took one of his most famous songs and put my own chords to it. Yeah, he’ll love that. Not.
Well, when we got to the sitzprobe - first rehearsal with the full cast and crew in attendance (just wanted to use that term to let you know how musical-savvy I am) which included the singers Cyrille Aimée, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis and Bernadette Peters, I kept looking around for Mr. Sondheim, but realized I had no idea what he looked. Well, I figured someone at some point would introduce him to the band, but this never happened.
When we got through the rehearsals, still worried if I would offend the composer, I asked someone if Mr. Sondheim would be attending any of the production, and I was told he had been at one of our rehearsals! Man, I wish I knew so I could see his reaction, discern if he liked what he heard or just plain wanted to kill me.
I think the conductor, David Loud (great name, by the way, suggesting perhaps a lack of variety in dynamics, but this wasn’t the case), was nervous from the beginning that we could pull this off, given both the time constraints and the fact that he probably didn’t have any faith that a group of jazz musicians would arrange a bunch of Broadway-style songs successfully and that we would play the music well with such limited rehearsal time. On top of this Wynton made the executive decision to cancel our last rehearsal, to give the brass players a break from the taxing and demanding charts. Plus, I think there was an important football game to watch.
So, we got to the dress rehearsal and it seemed to go pretty well, with a few mistakes here and there, but surprisingly polished. Even Mr. Loud was feeling confident that it would all come together.
At one point back stage I asked if Mr. Sondheim was going to attend and one of the stage hands said “He just walked by, didn’t you see him?” I don’t even know how he looks. I heard he was around 80, and for some reason imagined a rather frail but tall, white haired, somewhat nerdy man with glasses. I kept my eyes open, but never saw this man.
We got through the concerts and I have to say the band really pulled it together. The 28 arrangements worked and the singers and dancers were great. Bernadette, at 65, was lookin’ better than a body has a right to (to borrow from Dolly Parton) and every time she sang everyone around her got full with emotion. Cyrille Aimée was the only real jazz singer of the bunch, and we delighted in her scat singing, a discipline I wish most singers would just leave alone. But with Ms. Aimée’s natural feel for and understanding of the jazz language, we couldn’t get enough.
Where the hell is Mr. Sondheim? I still haven’t seen him. Would someone please introduce him to us? Or just point him out so I can see if he has a loaded shotgun pointed at me!
At one point our conductor, Mr. Loud, said he would bring him over to the band to say hello. Never happened. Now I felt like I was on death row, not sure when my time would come. Let’s just get it over with. Yes, Mr. Sondheim, I messed up your tune, I am sorry to destroy such a beautiful and revered song. I had good intentions, and at least it was a band number and not a vocal.
“Hey, everyone. Don’t forget to come to the after party tonight,” we were reminded before our final performance. Now I would certainly run into Mr. Sondheim. Well, gotta face the music, so to speak.
The party was great. Drummer Matt Wilson. who brought his teenaged daughter Audrey (a BIG Sondheim fan) to the last performance, came to the after party. At one point Audrey came running up to us as we sipped reception wine. “I just met Mr. Sondheim, I can’t believe it. He is amazing. I shook his hand. He didn’t say much but I met him.” Ok, where is he? I looked around. No tall, frail nerdy guy with glasses. I had to know. I asked Audrey “Which one is he.” “That’s him over there,” pointing to a small round table at which two men we standing. One was in his 30s so it had to be the other guy. “You sure that’s him,” asked, looking at a rather short, tough hipster, no glasses and smartly dressed. “Yep. Isn’t he amazing...”
All right, gotta do this. I walked over to the table.
“Are you Stephen Sondheim” I asked the hipster. He looked at me, paused and then asked back, “Are you.”
“No, I’m (clearing throat) Ted Nash.”
“Yes, you are.” He said this like a teacher who was about ready to hand out detention, or a parent prepared to ground you for a year.
“Listen, I suppose I owe you an explanation,” I said quickly, hoping to cut him off at the pass.
“Actually,” he said, “I believe I owe you some money.”
“For the extra chords you put on Send in the Clown.”
“Yeah, I am sorry about that, I...”
“No, I liked them. It actually sounded like something I might have written - an extension of what I was thinking when I wrote it.”
“Yes. In fact I would love to use them sometime. If you don’t mind.”
Mind? I was just relieved that he didn’t hand me a summons to go to music court. He ended up asking me for a recording of my music, and then turned to his 30-something friend. “Would you please send Ted my address?” He did. And I sent him three of my CDs, Portrait in Seven Shades, Chakra and the Mancini Project.
A couple weeks later I got a nice note from Mr. Sondheim thanking me for the CDs. Now I gotta brag to Audrey Wilson that not only did I shake his hand but I got a note from the wonderful Mr. Sondheim. And I’m still alive.