Our continuing preview of this year’s concerts continues with a peek at Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem, set for December 12. After the dizzying success of last year’s tribute to W. C. Handy, I wanted to get the team together again as soon as possible. And I almost succeeded: vocalists Joshua Blue, Justin Austin, and Lucia Bradford were available, as were reed-man Scott Robinson and piano partner Joseph Li. Full-out rapture turned briefly to modified rapture when we lost Vince Giordano, our bass/tuba/percussion guru, and then Shereen Pimentel. She has been called away to a project that trumped ours—the role of Maria in the new Broadway “West Side Story.” It still takes my breath away to type those words. I am wildly proud of Shereen and can’t wait to cheer her on the Great White Way. But I admit I didn’t see this coming (she’s a senior at Juilliard!), and it took me some months to find a replacement. After a bunch of auditions, that piece of casting was finalized yesterday: Bryonha Parham will join the ensemble, and I am restored to full rapture. Bryonha is a sensational performer, recommended by a pair of artistic giants in my life (Michael Barrett and Broadway producer Jack Viertel). I know we’ve landed on our feet.
The material in the show draws on songs written by Billy Strayhorn, Porter Grainger (composer of the title song), and Bessie Smith, as well as material popularized by “Ma” Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and others. Elliott Hurwitt is helping with the research, as he did with the W. C. Handy show, and his expertise in early blues and jazz is beyond a mitzvah—more like a “mitzvissima.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Billy Strayhorn, you’re in for a treat. He was Duke Ellington’s amanuensis and (often uncredited) co-composer for some of Duke’s iconic hits, including “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Strayhorn was a musician of tremendous skill and a sensuality rare in the staccato world of jazz. Here is one of his most beautiful songs, “Day Dream,” sung with antigravitational ecstasy by Darius de Haas. I got the full measure of the piece when I once had to play it in transposition. Normally it is not that difficult to move the key of a popular song—the chord changes, no matter how bewitching, are fairly standard. Not so with “Day Dream,” which has the most beautiful and deceptively complex harmonic progression of anything in the Great American Songbook.