Turn up the heat

Jan 31, 2007 at 12:00 am

The narrator of Blues Rhythm is a grizzled and nostalgic piano player, a character who's a little bit of Marcus Belgrave, a little bit of the late Harold McKinney and a bunch of jazz cats that Lisa McCall, the revue's creator, has known over the years, from Detroit to New York and back.

But the piano player who conjures up the good ol' days — when dance and jazz were joined at the thrusting hip — is clearly a surrogate of sorts for McCall as well.

She's a self-styled "jazz baby." She was 10 or 12 in the early '80s when she attended a summer program led by former Motown star Kim Weston and got hooked. She hung around jazz musicians like Belgrave and the late McKinney and Teddy Harris Jr. And the late Clifford Fears, who had been featured with the flamboyant Katherine Dunham dance troupe before returning home to start his own, took McCall into his troupe and under his wing.

She took cues, too, from burlesque queen "Lottie the Body" Graves and chorus-line dancers who rocked the stages three decades before in the heyday of black entertainment in the old Paradise Valley.

Now, at 37, she's taking what she learned from those older dancers and putting it on the stage with singers, dancers and musicians — ranging in age from their 70s to their teens.

The project has been gnawing at McCall for years, she says. After 15 years in New York — dancing with Alvin Ailey and on Broadway, choreographing in Europe, working fashion runways — she came back to Detroit in 2000 to teach dance. But she wanted a place for herself and fellow hoofers to practice their craft outside of the classroom.

One night she was down at Bert's Marketplace listening to a big band led by James Carter, her friend since childhood.

"I just got up there and started dancing," she says. McCall got to thinking about the way her mentor Fears staged dance concerts with live music from Harris's big band. No canned music for Clifford.

And she thought about the time before that, when singing and showgirl sashaying went hand in hand with swinging music. The world knows about the Cotton Club in the Harlem of the 1920s. McCall wanted to celebrate Detroit's heritage, including jumping clubs of the 1940s and 1950s like the Three Sixes and the Flame Showbar.

"I had been saying this for a year," she says, "and one day James said, 'Well, then, you know you're left. You make it happen.'" Harris, when she visited him at the VA hospital near the end of his life, told her pretty much the same thing. "'I know I'm not going to be here to see it, but you make sure you do that show,'" she recalls him saying.

McCall interviewed old-timers and gathered their memories as raw material for her script. Finally, about six months ago, she started Blues Rhythm in earnest. "Everybody agreed to this basically on my passion," she says. "We started with two girls and James Carter in a classroom with me going dee-dee-dee dee-dee-bop, and now I look back and I say, 'Wow.' I said, 'We don't have any money, but I know if I get the best musicians and the best dancers and the best singers and we do this, and just work hard, I know someone will help us and we can do this show.'"

By late December's dress rehearsal, a lot of someones had come to help. Owner Bert Dearing offered his Bert's Warehouse Theatre in Eastern Market. The cast grew to nearly 30: including showgirls, tap dancers, a lead dancer, a narrator, singers and a 16-piece orchestra, plus lighting and sound and other technical types. Guitarist Vaughn Klugh orchestrated and arranged Ellington classics and other material. Jazz notables, including Belgrave, Dwight Adams, George Davidson and Van Cephus had joined the estimable musical consultant Carter in the band. The vocalists include Sandra Feva, a backup singer for Aretha Franklin, and the singer-poet-performance artist Sky Covington.

Despite some technical glitches, the rehearsal-night crowd of more than 200, a couple of weeks ago, roared applause after the show had hop-scotched through intimate little barroom songs, machine-gun tap workouts, over-the-top showgirl dance lines and a finale invoking the spirits of Afro-Caribbean dance.

Of course, it's a long way to the kind of dinner theater show she wants to open March 1 and run six weeks. There's money to be raised for her I'yawo Dance Theater company, for one thing. McCall figures she still needs another $30,000 to $50,000. There is a mountain of other details.

Though she may not have been there to see the chorus girls and others shake and sound out the real thing at places like the Flame years ago, she's determined to revive the party and keep it going for a good long while.


For more information, see bluesrhythmshow.com or call 313-587-2300.

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]