Composer and lyricist Mildred Kayden thought jazz was great music way back, when it was viewed as somehow lesser in many circles. When she was teaching at Vassar College in the 1940s and ‘50s, jazz was not included in the musical curriculum, and even a production like “Porgy and Bess” was written as an operetta, she recalls. Still, jazz prevailed, evolved, and for decades it has been recognized as a major and authentic American art form.
Fascinated by the genesis and spread of jazz, Kayden conceived of “Storyville,” a musical about the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans. Located next to the French Quarter in New Orleans, Storyville was the infamous red light district from 1897 to 1917. The play is inspired by historical events and boasts an array of colorful characters — from a corrupt mayor to a trumpet player to a lot of whores with hearts of gold.
Kayden joined forces with African-American playwright Ed Bullins, who wrote the book while she forged the lyrics and music. The production made its debut in San Diego in 1977. Thirty-six years later it is finally playing off-Broadway at The York Theatre Company.
Kayden has a host of musical productions to her credit, including “Ionescopade,” which, based on the plays of Eugene Ionesco, currently in its 30th-anniversary production at Los Angeles’s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. “We’re getting rave reviews,” she said. “When we did it 30 years ago it didn’t do very well. The world is so absurd now, it has caught up with Ionesco.”
Kayden spoke with the Forward’s Simi Horwitz about “Storyville,” her collaboration with the controversial Bullins and her own memorable journey.
As a Jew, do you feel you have a special connection to jazz?
Yes, as a Jew I’m connected to the warmth and sensuousness of jazz music. Even though I didn’t grow up on [New York City’s] Lower East Side, the music of the Second Avenue theaters was in the air. Music is in the Jewish soul. That’s why there are so many Jews writing musical theater.