Going downtown for ‘Uptown’

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by Anthony Harrison

“My story is a very simple story.”

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was a fan of understated elegance, evident as much in his music as in that quotation. Despite his modesty, his atypical arrangements and immortal melodies — as well as his personal pride in his race — profoundly molded the American cultural landscape.

Duke Ellington Uptown honors the life and music of an icon, and the Touring Theatre of North Carolina does a stand-up job of presenting and preserving Ellington’s legacy.

The show opened at the Crown at the Carolina Theatre on March 6, a day delayed due to inconsequential weather.

The Crown, wide open and high-ceilinged, assumed the guise of a cabaret — small circular tables closely scattered in the center, and the audience — mostly white, with a median age of about 52 — sipped red wine and bottled Yuengling as the jazz trio warmed up.

Pianist Perry Morgan showed off some classy, Duke-esque tickling chops. Vattel Cherry jogged the dog on the double bass. And Adam Bradby played a comically small drum kit — just a hi-hat, ride, piccolo snare and a toy-like bass drum — with lock-step precision.

A simple piano trio playing big-band jazz may seem a tall order, but soon after the five players filed in, they dispelled any doubts.

Vocalist Sonya Brown engaged the crowd with captivating verve.

“Are you ready to have a good time?” she practically yelled to the audience.

Whether or not they were, the five vocalists launched into “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in unison until the doo-wop chorus, when they broke into tight harmonies subbing in for missing horns.

While the show started big, Charetta Shaw cooled things down with the second number, “In a Sentimental Mood.” She melted the audience, sweetly serenading one of the Duke’s most beautiful songs with artful restraint, perfectly behind the beat — just as Ellington liked it.

Bassist Vattel Cherry and Kernodle share a smooch with director Brenda Schleunes.
Bassist Vattel Cherry and Kernodle share a smooch with director Brenda Schleunes.

Carlos St. James served as Duke’s stand-in, recalling classic Ellington quotes and stories. He also interpreted a few of Ellington’s tunes wonderfully, shining especially on “Sophisticated Lady.” St. James slid in and out of the slow, blue notes and appropriately talk-sang the casual line, “Smoking, drinking/ never thinking of tomorrow/ nonchalant.”

John Kernodle represented a historical narrator to St. James’ Duke character, reciting contemporary and latter-day reviews and remembrances of Ellington’s life.

“The only thing harder than getting him out of bed in the afternoon was getting him to finish a song by the time it premiered,” Kernodle said of Ellington’s procrastination.

But Ellington got his work done, as Kernodle showed with “Mood Indigo.” Kernodle sang the tune operatically, with rich tone and timbre; Kay Thomas delivered Duke’s melodies similarly with wavering, classical vibrato on tunes like “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” It may seem odd for singers to deliver jazz in such a way, but their interpretations underscored the idea that Ellington’s music transcends the jazz idiom and can and should be taken as seriously as Verdi, Puccini or even Mozart and Beethoven.

While Ellington’s body of work stands as a monument of American music, the aforementioned Sonya Brown reminded the audience that it’s also fun as hell.

Brown was the absolute star of the show. She owned the night. Her presence and charisma filled the Crown as effectively as her enormous voice.

During her performance of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Brown positively beamed, acting out the lyrics and dancing around the microphone.

What happened during the piano solo really dialed up the charm.

“I missed you!” Brown said to a man seated at a front table. “Where’ve you been?” she asked as she gave him a hug. Brown then noticed the man’s wife, and asked with mock outrage, “Who’s this? Who’s she? You got a new girlfriend?”

The audience erupted in a fit of laughter.

Other moments in the show delighted nearly as much as Brown’s little quips and propositions. Shaw and St. James would occasionally break into some flappy dancing and light Lindy-hopping during instrumental breaks. In the middle of their duet on “Satin Doll,” Kernodle and St. James brought out top hats and canes, and danced a little routine ending with a playful swordfight, with Kernodle emerging as victor. They later fought for Shaw’s affection during “Drop Me Off in Harlem.”

At that number’s close, Brown strolled up and said, “If you wanna go to Harlem, you’re gonna have to take the A train.”

The entire ensemble broke into the Billy Strayhorn classic, but Brown spat out an incredible scat solo during the bridge before introducing the band without missing a beat.

A short reprise of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” brought the night to a close.

To his last moments on earth, Ellington was a graceful, complex genius. His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”

Duke Ellington Uptown and the Touring Theatre of North Carolina honors the Duke’s wishes.