Frank Boyd admits he is neither a jazzhead nor a jazznerd. He’s a newcomer to appreciating the music — music that he says has a public perception problem.
“People think it’s dead or boring, or that it’s background,” he says. “The music that I started getting into and that I’m playing in the show is explosive.”
The show – his show – is "The Holler Sessions," a new one-man production for the theater actor that’s premiering at On The Boards. Boyd plays an irreverent, cigar-smoking, towel-around-the-neck jazz radio DJ named Ray.
“He’s kind of inspired by 1970s-era George Carlin. Also a huge inspiration is a sports guy, Christopher 'Mad Dog' Russo,” Boyd explains.
And nothing would make Ray happier than turning each and everyone of us into a jazz aficionado.
Ray the DJ is combustible and fast-thinking. Boyd the actor carries a more restrained exuberance. But like the fictional character he's written, Boyd these days can be floored emotionally by a piece of jazz music.
Consider “Basin Street Blues” by Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges:
“I was listening to that in the gym and I was so moved, I had to just stop and leave the room," he says.
The song winds up in the show. (There’s a lot of music that Ray plays and expounds upon and just lets us absorb). “Basin Street Blues,” Ray maintains, ought to be the National Anthem: "This is us. It feels like us."
What also outrages Ray? A public education system that is out of sorts:
"Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria. Why do we all know that?! We get that every year in school! Why?! Duke [Ellington]. Louis [Armstrong]. Billie [Holiday]. Fletcher Henderson. That’s your Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, folks."
This is the first one-man show for Boyd, an actor who scored critical raves in Book-It’s production of “Kavalier and Clay” last year. To be honest, he says he’s always been a little turned off by the one-man show concept. “One actor showing off all the different accents they can do.” But the idea for Ray grew out of a different project when, a few years back, Boyd was in Kansas City, Missouri with the Brooklyn-based theater troupe The Team. The troupe was working on a show about civil discourse.
“And someone thought a radio DJ would make a good character,” Boyd recalls.
Being in Kansas City also offered the actor a crash course in jazz history. He started chatting up musicians about the meaning of jazz. At the American Jazz Museum, he met a tenor saxophonist who explained his connection to the music.
“He told me how jazz was his connection to his father and his grandfather and through jazz he could trace himself all the way back to Africa. He had no other way of doing that because those records don’t exist. It destroyed me," he says.
Boyd threw himself into the genre, Shazamming songs to find their titles, reading biographies, watching the Ken Burns documentary. Ray the DJ swears and riffs and improvises on jazz because that’s the only way he can testify about the monumental meaning of jazz.
Says the actor: “It’s about inspiring a more visceral experience of the music because it's right there. If you just find the stuff that speaks to you it can be very powerful.”
"The Holler Sessions" plays from Jan. 8 through Jan. 18 at On The Boards in Seattle.