We’re always learning, but some people are lucky enough to encounter mentors early who put a special stamp upon what the learning process yields. Teachers in formal and informal situations alike point out the stepping stones toward individual success. Their teaching often reaches beyond their specialties, extending to wider horizons.The final session this season of “The Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam” at the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night gave a free rein to such memories for host Sophie Faught, jazz saxophonist and composer; guest Steve Allee, pianist-composer-bandleader, and writer and co-host Dan Wakefield.
When I went to New York to go to college at Columbia in 1952, one of the abundant gifts of being there was the chance to see Broadway plays and musicals. You could go to a matinee and get a Standing Room ticket for $2.00. That’s how I saw the musical that many (including me) still believe is the greatest of American theatrical history – South Pacific. It was not only a great story, based on the book of stories of World War II by James A. Michener, it hypnotized you with dancing and with songs that became popular standards – “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” – and one that needs to be revived in every era, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” It was a song about how we have to be carefully taught, in every age, to be afraid, of people whose skin is a different shade. . .or feel a little bit differently made. All of this – love stories, memorable music, prize- winning dances, life lessons – on one stage, in one afternoon.
How great it would it be to help create a musical; to give words and stories an even greater depth, a literal echo in the soul, with the added dimension of music? One of my earliest memories of feeling a sense of the beauty of being alive was hearing a girl in my fourth grade class, Sandra Anderson, singing a solo from “Hiawatha.” It was spring, the classroom windows were open, and Sandra’s clear soprano carried the story to a place so deep in my consciousness (in my soul) I can still hear it. Creating anything with music, though, was not in my own power. I couldn’t carry a tune; after being cast as the lead in Hansel and Gretel at School #80, the teachers concluded I’d better just say the lines but not try to sing. I studied the clarinet for four years, but every year a new boy would pass me by in the last chair of the school orchestra. My name may as well have been carved in the chair. After writing four novels I had an idea for writing the book of a musical, but not knowing any composers, and not feeling confident enough of my story to seek out a whole new world of musicians, I let that dream fizzle out.
Last year a whole series of accidental good fortunes led me to start a radio show called “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” that aired on WFYI (and is being re-run this season.) It began with Michael Thierwechter coming up to me at The Red Key and saying he had told Jim (Settle), the owner, that things were sometimes slow on Monday nights, so he suggested “Why don’t we have Dan come in and we’ll call it “Writers Night?”
I said “No, then people will expect me to read and comment on their writing – let’s call it ‘Uncle Dan’s Story Hour.”
That name stuck, and when Will Higgins of The Star came aboard as co-host, and we took it to WFYI to propose as a radio show, my first thought was “Music! We need music!”
The next thought was “Sophie!”
I had heard the terrific saxophone player Sophie Faught play on Wednesday nights with her trio at The Chatterbox downtown, and I liked her work so much I asked her to play at a book party for a re-issue of my novel Under The Apple Tree, a story of the “Home Front” in WWII. She played a popular song of the era, “This Will Be My Shining Hour,” inspired by Churchill’s tribute to the Londoners who survived the Blitz (“This was their finest hour.”)
Sophie’s playing is so strong, so “on the mark,” that it never is just “background; it lifts everything else to a higher level, blessing the scene with a fuller awareness of whatever is being celebrated or discussed. She did that for “The Story Hour” as well, with a song at the intermission and another at the end, framing our words, our stories. I soon realized that Sophie’s music was “the soul of the show.”
As I talked of the possibilities for a new season, a new kind of show, with the co-producer of “The Story Hour,” Pat Chastain, we both wanted to do something more with Sophie. I thought it would be great to have a show of half words and half music – half Sophie playing and half me and Sophie or me and Sophie and friends, talking. My un-original idea for a title “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Hour” – a title derived from 1940s radio era programs, but Sophie had a more timely suggestion: “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam!” That got us into the current century.
For our first show at The Jazz Kitchen, we worked out true tales of “Starting Out” – Sophie with stories of starting out as a musician in the 21st century, me with my own tales of starting out as a writer in the 1950s. We thought of songs that reflected out experience0 – when I got my first words in print in The Indianapolis News, my song was “Don’t Fence Me in!” When I was on the brink of my first big break for a magazine, it was “This Will Be My Shining Hour. . .”
We did that show and a good audience received it well. For our next opus, Sophie’s friend pianist David Linard will be in town, and the three of us will talk of “The Big Break” in our own careers, with songs to match. When I first talked with Sophie to plan “The Jam” she used a word that stayed with me ever since – “resonant.” She spoke of how each musician hopefully finds an instrument he or she feels resonant with – for her it was the tenor sax. We imagine our show as “Tales of the Artist’s Life, made resonant with jazz.”
We hope you’ll come and hear the next one, Tuesday night, December 26, 6-8pm at The Jazz Kitchen (tickets available here.). Celebrate the finish of the first lap of the Holidays! Get jazzed up for the New Year to come – Jam with “Uncle Dan” and Sophie!