Brimming with life, energy, style, and substance, a fantastic jazz combo ushers in each performance of The Jazz Messenger. The tight ensemble underscores dramatic scenes, accompanies dusky ballads, and even keeps rhythm during intermission. Unfortunately, the dramatic substance of this uneven production never locates the vivid colors heralded by the musicians. An impressive but wobbly effort written by Eric K. Daniels (who also stars in the title role), the play tells the story of Terry Clayton, an African-American trumpet player who is imprisoned by a malicious German officer in France during World War II. The officer, Major Köhn, is smitten with Terry's girlfriend, a French jazz singer named Avril. He enlists the despondent Terry to help him write jazz songs to win her affection. Locked in his cell, Terry befriends an ailing French priest and also finds time to construct a gramophone made of various objects, including pieces of a sewing machine, a butter churner, and a dessert tray.
Not only does the play drown in its diffuse plot, but it is also troubled by a lack of focus on the central conflict. Rather than deepen the relationship between Avril and Terry (ostensibly the thing most at stake), Daniels has written himself mini-monologues in which he pontificates on the subject he loves most: jazz. However, these outbursts don't always make sense. For example, when the petulant Terry teaches Köhn to create rhythm, he exhorts him, "I didn't say smother it, brother!" This colloquial language, along with his frequent use of "man," creates a false familiarity between him and the tyrannical military man, a mercurial character who doesn't hesitate to raise (and use) his pistol at the slightest provocation. That he would be coddled with jazz-speak is hardly believable.
Daniels seizes every opportunity to exalt the spontaneity and bliss of jazz, a form that, for its players, "reflects their soul and suffering in the moment." Within this dramatic context, however, it's no substitution for the sufficient development of character. In the absence of dimensional performances and clearly defined relationships, this ambitious, emotional story frequently becomes melodramatic and overwrought.
Still, there is plenty of emotional and intellectual terrain within this story. Terry doesn't just talk about jazz—he uses it as a code to alert the French Resistance to the Germans' plans, an enticing development that is mentioned only fleetingly. And Terry's racial conflict—not feeling entirely welcome in either France or pre-civil rights America—is also briefly mentioned.
Perhaps due to the inconsistent material (and peripatetic accents), the performances are more faintly sketched than fully embodied. The Jazz Messenger is a promising riff in search of a solid bass line.
Note: This production is part of the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival.