'Last Call at the Downbeat' shines a spotlight on a jazz legend’s forgotten Philly connection

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'Last Call at the Downbeat' shines a spotlight on a jazz legend’s forgotten Philly connection

The hypothetical time machine proposed by last year’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) presumably had the juice to travel in space as well as time. But when Suzanne Cloud took the wheel she steered it just a few blocks, to the corner of 11th and Ludlow. 

Here, in 1942, stood Nat Segal’s Downbeat, the first integrated nightclub in Philadelphia. The headliner for a short stint that November was 25-year-old trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Not yet a legend, the bebop pioneer was a recent transplant from South Carolina. He’d just been fired from his gig with bandleader Lucky Millinder at the Earle Theatre a few blocks away.

“He hasn’t formed any kind of partnership with Charlie Parker yet,” Cloud says of this particular moment in Gillespie’s career. “He knows him from jamming at Minton’s [Playhouse in Harlem] a little bit, but this is three months prior to them working together nightly in Earl Hines’ band. So I thought it would make a really interesting play with music by a real jazz band.”

The result is Last Call at the Downbeat, which returned to the Society Hill Playhouse this month in a revised version from its opening at PIFA. Cloud drew on Gillespie’s memoir To Be, or Not … to Bop as well as a wealth of other sources to capture the trumpeter’s story and personality. Ostensibly a one-man show, the play actually divides Gillespie’s voice between two performers: Actor Gavin Whitt portrays him as a gregarious showman recounting his personal history as it leads up to this pivotal moment on the musical timeline, while trumpeter Duane Eubanks takes over when it’s time for Gillespie to speak through his horn.

“I knew I’d never find an actor who could play well and act,” Cloud says. “So I asked Duane if he wanted to get a band together and be the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie.”

Duane is the youngest of Philly’s musical Eubanks brothers, following renowned trombonist Robin and former Tonight Show with Jay Leno bandleader and guitarist Kevin. Leading a quartet that gets significant stage time over the course of the show, Duane Eubanks never apes Gillespie’s flamboyant sound, instead he employs his own less fiery voice on period-appropriate tunes mostly pared down from Gillespie’s early big-band arrangements.

Cloud is best known as a jazz singer and co-founder of Jazz Bridge, a nonprofit providing support for local jazz and blues musicians in times of crisis, including legal, medical, financial and personal assistance. She has a background in regional theater, however, as a soprano in shows like The Fantasticks, South Pacific and Carousel. That was before she “blew my throat out with disco.”

Her only previous attempt at playwriting came decades ago, with a musical adaptation of Ben Jonson’s 17th-century comedy Bartholomew Fayre that played for a single evening at the Painted Bride. “We did a read-through at the Bride and it was three hours long,” Cloud recalls with a laugh. “I wanted to make a political statement, but people had to pack lunches. It died after that.”

The same desire animates Cloud’s work on Last Call at the Downbeat, which she hopes will bring new audiences to jazz, and educate them about its rich history. “I think that theater is able to translate and communicate complex ideas, which I try to do in this show. Jazz needs more of that because its audience is aging and dying. Organizing concerts for Jazz Bridge, I constantly wrack my brain about how to reach ordinary people in a different way.”

Like her work with Jazz Bridge, Last Call is intended to help people not only enjoy, but also to empathize with jazz musicians. “I wanted to show that the decision that Dizzy made to play music, like all musicians who play jazz, is a vow of poverty,” Cloud says. “These are real people making real decisions, and audiences need to know that the people who they’re hearing and who they love go home and can’t pay their light bill.” 

Fri.-Sat, April 11-12, 8 p.m.; Sun., April 13, 2 p.m.; $25, Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St., 215-517-8337, jazzbridge.org.

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