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At 91, Mildred Kayden Is More Successful Than Ever

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.

Music is part of a collective unconscious?

Yes, I believe it is.

What do you think of rap?

I dislike it. They took the music out of the rhythm. It’s all words. “I hate this ho. She is a bum.” When Ed and I wrote about the whorehouse in New Orleans, we wrote about it with humanity, not vulgarity.

Wasn’t Ed Bullins an odd choice for you? He had a reputation as an anti-Semite.

I was never afraid of Ed, and in 40 years of working with him I never saw any evidence of anti-Semitism. He’s a pussycat, and it’s been love, love, love.

Did you ever talk with him about his ideology?

We only focused on the work.

Were you a supporter of the Black Panther movement?

No, I was always anti anti-white.

How do you define your politics today?

I’m afraid of the extreme right. But I’m also afraid of the extreme left. I’m pro-Israel, but not enough to become an Orthodox Jew who supports [Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu.

How do you define your Jewishness?

I’m religious in my soul, and I fast on Yom Kippur. But I don’t have to go to temple every Friday.

How did your background inform your ambitions?

My father made $50 a week as an embroiderer and instead of spending all the money on food, my mother took the money and bought an upright piano so that she and I could take piano lessons. She hired a teacher for both of us, and three months later [the teacher] told her that she was not good enough to continue but I was. She enrolled me in the Brooklyn Music School and took me there every Thursday after school. Later I studied music at Juilliard. My parents were always supportive and loved what I was doing.

Did you ever suffer sexism in your career?

Yes, of course. If you have an adequate-looking face, you’ll experience sexism. But I never took it seriously. I nipped it in the bud, and it never got in the way of my career. Also, the fact that I’m very businesslike may have discouraged it.

What about ageism?

I’m 91 now and more successful than ever.

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