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PREVIEW: Hot Funky Butt Jazz at the Guthrie

Zena Moses (as Marie Laveau), Messiah Moses Albert (as young Louis Armstrong), Jeremy Phipps (as Stringbean Russell), Michael Wolfe (as Professor James London), and Naa Mensah (as Essie) in the Center for the Visual and Performing Artists/Guthrie Theater co-presentation of Hot Funky Butt Jazz.

There’s a saying that if you think old people were starched, you’re not looking hard enough. Wander on down to New Orleans in a bygone age and you’d have seen proof right where today’s City Hall stands: a place called Funky Butt Hall.

Funky Butt? Yes, indeed. Sit back and listen to how, once upon a time, a New Orleans alderman named Sidney Story decided to clean up the rest of the city. Naturally, this wouldn’t actually solve the problems of too much crime – instead he designated a 38-block area as a purpose-designated redlight district, where drug abuse and prostitution would be overlooked. Little did Alderman Story expect that the 38-block area’s residents, nonplussed, would name the area after him. The result was the storied Storyville District in which Funky Butt Hall would be erected.

It didn’t take long for Storyville’s zoning to create a self-fulfilling prophecy as houses of prostitution, gambling dens, and other vice centers flocked to the area. Alderman Story had, in his wisdom, drawn the district lines around a railway station, making it a convenient destination for tourists, clients, and other visitors. Soon the area had a thriving array of brothels, some of which (like Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall) were luxuriously appointed with marble and live music. Around the brothels sprang up restaurants and saloons, catering to the brothel patrons’ other appetites and, eventually, independent traffic drawn to these non-sexual entertainments.

Within a few years of Storyville’s creation, the area had a thriving music scene. Cornetist Buddy Bolden, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, and bass player Pops Foster are just a few of the famous names who got their career start playing at Storyville clubs and brothels and the dance halls that followed. One of the most popular places for dancing was the stodgily named Union Sons Hall; after Bolden titled one of his songs “Funky Butt”, after the area’s notoriously smelly odor, residents decided it was too good a name not to use again. Soon, the Union Sons Hall was “Funky Butt Hall”, and in “cleaner” districts whistling the tune for “Funky Butt” became either a rude insult or a dirty joke, depending on your humor. It’s in this world that the musical Hot Funky Butt Jazz unfolds.

Hot Funky Butt Jazz, which opens at the Guthrie Theater on November 2, is a new musical created by the Interact Ensemble and set in the heart of Storyville. It features music and lyrics by Aaron Gabriel, is directed by Jeanne Calvit, and itself features a trio of musicians from New Orleans (Zena Moses, Jeremy Phipps, and Eugene Harding). To capture the essence of a packed dance club, the cast features more than 50 actors, with and without disabilities.

Interact Theater, which co-produces this show with the Guthrie Theater, is dedicated to commissioning, developing, and producing new and contemporary plays that explore today’s social, political, and cultural issues. The show’s celebration of musical excellence and a thriving dance culture in the heart of a “blight” zone is a reminder of the artistic and community vibrance often erased by gentrification and urban renewal. Or, if you please, it can also just be a celebration of a killer music and dance time. Either’s pretty hot.

Funky Butt Jazz plays November 2-18 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Twin Cities Arts Reader