Jazz in the Blood: Uncoiling The Holler Sessions
Frank Boyd is the sort of supremely talented performer whose craft is so refined it’s nearly invisible. For all I know, he might very well be a sweaty, smalltime jazz DJ who lives on a diet of coffee, peanuts and Charlie Parker in real life.
His one-man-show, The Holler Sessions, created in collaboration with the TEAM, assumes the form of a live radio broadcast and begins as a fairly straightforward slice of DJ life. Boyd’s character belongs to a species of music nerd with a loose take on grooming and a vitally infectious addiction to jazz. He starts the day careening around a rumpled-looking studio, watering a near-dead houseplant with yesterday’s coffee, and coming all at once into sharp, spine-tingling focus when he puts a Charles Mingus track on the radio.
Watching The Holler Sessions is a euphoric and heartrending experience. I’ve always been somewhat cautiously intimidated by jazz—I didn’t grow up on it and I don’t know much about it. Jazz makes me feel good, but I never developed a singular, aching devotion to it. Twenty minutes into The Holler Sessions, I was altogether convinced of its utter necessity for my continued survival.
Boyd is more than a DJ in this role —he’s an apostle. And he suffers for his faith. We watch him go through a few on-air shticks, baiting potential callers (or rather us, the audience) to answer self-evident trivia questions with coupons to local BBQ joints (“we beat it, you eat it”, promises one slogan). We get the impression he’s lonely, and maybe a little desperate to know there’s at least one other person out there listening. It’s as if the way he loves jazz is so powerfully explosive, it’s more than just one human can endure. He has to find another mind to share it with.
I had to remind myself several times throughout the piece that I was indeed watching theater and not witnessing one man’s true jazz testimony—Boyd dissolves so completely into his character that it’s easy to take him at face value. He has a recurring refrain throughout the piece—while waxing poetic about the great luminaries of jazz, he’ll cut himself back and remind us, “I don’t play.” He says it without remorse or envy, but he’s stern about it. It’s a line he uses to humble himself, to bring into sharp contrast the divide between himself as a fan, a civilian, and players as Artists.
It’s a moment that reminds me of a favorite Frank O’Hara poem, written for O’Hara’s longtime lover, the painter Larry Rivers:
To Larry Rivers
You are worried that you don’t write?
Don’t be. It’s the tribute of the air that
your paintings don’t just let go
of you. And what poet ever sat down
in front of a Titan, pulled out
his versifying tablet and began
to drone? Don’t complain, my dear,
You do what I can only name.
It’s an instance of an artist humbling his form in reverence of another. In The Holler Sessions I feel Boyd saying the same thing to his jazz idols –“you do what I can only name” – but the totality of this piece of theatre is an incredible and genuine work of art.
Jazz and theatre have come to occupy similar cultural spheres: both were once the popular entertainment of their day, and are by now largely divorced from mainstream culture, overly intellectualized and codified with a majority white, aging audience. Boyd puts jazz at even further odds with the contemporary music scene with an attempt at a “current events” segment, where he leafs through a 3-year old copy of Rolling Stone for any news of interest. He’s appalled by the gross entanglement of music and advertising, offloading the brunt of his ire on the shameless ‘branding’ of Justin Timberlake.
Jazz, he’s here to tell us, is about listening. It’s about paying devout attention to another human being. He offers us as a metaphor a story about soldiers in the trenches, on battlegrounds too dangerous to go outside long enough to defecate (a nod, perhaps, to Louis Armstrong’s legendary love of the laxative Swiss Kriss, a product he believed in so much he advertised for it without any compensation). Their only recourse, we’re told, was to take turns holding little baggies for one another to do their business in. The concentration such a task requires, if you don’t want to muck it up, is immense and profoundly intimate.
So must jazz musicians listen and feel one another as they improvise, and so must we focus ourselves if we’re to fully appreciate the music. Paying attention is critical.
Shortly after these wise words and a blackout for punctuation (every so often Boyd has us take some time for “dead air”, and we sit for a moment in darkness and silence, time to breathe and reckon with the sounds we’ve just encountered), I noticed the houseplant, the same one Boyd treats to a drink of cold coffee early on in the show, had been swapped out for one that was taller, greener, more alive. It was a change so subtle and inconspicuous, and one that goes completely unacknowledged, that at first I doubted my eyes. And then I realized this subtlety was entirely intentional. It’s the sort of change you’d only notice if you’re really paying attention to the texture of this performance, with the sly, underlying implication that jazz and coffee are truly enough to thrive on.
Boyd reminds us that jazz has the power to ravage and destroy, offering as evidence the tragically young deaths suffered by many of its greatest legends. But it might also have the power to save your life. When he springs a sudden nosebleed, he figures it could only be because he “hasn’t taken his Nina today”, and puts “Do I Move you (version II)” on the radio. If you doubt Nina, you doubt yourself, he tells us. And it’s more than enough to keep him going.
The Holler Sessions is presented by Performance Space 122 as part of COIL 2016 in partnership with the Paradise Factory and runs through January 17. See http://www.ps122.org/the-holler-sessions/ for tickets.