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REVIEW: That’s How You Jazz: Jelly’s Last Jam (Theater Latté Da)

Julius Collins (center) as Buddy and the cast of Theater Latté Da’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam, which opened last night at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Photo by Dan Norman.

When George C. Wolfe brought Jelly’s Last Jam to Broadway in 1992, jazz fans were happy to see the important jazz innovator “Jelly Roll” Morton (born Ferdinand LaMothe, 1885-1941), and his music, introduced to a new generation.  At the same time, many were upset that this was done within a dramatic vehicle that unfairly portrayed Morton as a racist who denied his heritage and the sources of his music. The real Morton grew up with African-American pianist Tony Jackson as his idol, played almost exclusively with African American musicians. He is even literally on record with Library of Congress folk music historian Alan Lomax, proudly proclaiming the African American roots of his music.

That rant out of the way, we can now focus on the wonderful production of Jelly’s Last Jam, now currently being staged by Theater Latté Da at the Ritz Theater.  Whatever its merits as biography or history, the show is wonderful entertainment. Latté Da’s production is an evening of engaging music, dancing, and lessons to be learned.

Cynthia Jones-Taylor (center) stars as Miss Mamie in Jelly’s Last Jam. Photo by Dan Norman.

At the opening curtain, Jelly Roll Morton (Reese Britts) has just died, and he is being put on trial in a sort of Limbo by the Chimney Man (Andre Shoals). This device provides the occasion to review the events of Morton’s life, starting with the accusation that Morton denied during his life that he was Black (claiming that his Creole family came directly from French ancestors), and did not credit the African-American roots and African-American pain from which his music came.  During the course of the play, we also see him to be a braggart and a womanizer, and – worst of all – his unforgivably bad treatment of his wife Anita (Alexcia Thompson) and long-time friend Jack (Dwight Xaveir Leslie).

The story of Morton’s life in Jelly’s Last Jam has, basically, two tracks.  On the musical track, we are shown how Morton combined the musical elements around him into his original sound.  In an early scene, we see him being inspired by the different sounds of New Orleans vendors. In “That’s How You Jazz,” he explains how his music is built from blues, syncopation, and melody.

On the personal track, we hear of how Morton lost his parents at a young age, and how the grandmother who raised him gave him no love, and this (we are expressly told near the end of the show) is why he could never properly love those around him.  As narrated, the last years of Morton’s life were not happy ones. He had been a great success in Chicago, but flopped after moving to New York (in “Too Late, Daddy,” he is told: “You are too late daddy, we are singing a whole new song. … Who needs Jelly, when we’ve got Louie [Armstrong]”).

Reese Britts is front and center as Jelly Roll Morton. Photo by Dan Norman.

According to this track, music and celebrity passed Jelly Roll by.  As someone who (allegedly) denied his heritage, there was an irony to his dying, destitute, in the “colored wing” of a Los Angeles hospital. But in the play, at the end of his Limbo trial, Morton finally sees the error of his ways, and there is something like a happy ending.

This production has an excellent cast.  Jelly Roll Morton is wonderfully inhabited by Reese Britts as an adult, and by Jordan M. Leggett as a teenager.  Britts looks like the real-life Morton and carries much of the same charisma. Although he does not quite sound like the surviving recordings of Jelly Roll, Britts has an excellent and versatile voic, that works equally well across jazz, blues, and Dixieland.  Britts also shows off some impressive tap dancing (on Broadway, Morton was originally played by Gregory Hines).

Andre Shoals’s Chimney Man carries just the right combination of menace and foppish style.  Alexcia Thompson brings deep emotion, and a sweet voice (in “Play the Music for Me”), to Anita.  Special mention also for the tap dancing of Time Brickey, and the blues-singing (and blues-shouting) of Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Miss Mamie and Julius Collins as Buddy.


Crucial to the performance is the great band, barely visible upstage: Tommy Barbarella on piano; Joe May on clarinet, flute, and saxophone; Chris Smith on bass; Geoff LeCrone on guitar and banjo; and Steve Jennings on drums.  Much of the music played during the performance was composed or arranged by Morton, with some additional music and musical adaptation by Luther Henderson.

Eli Sherlock has created a minimalist set, where basic props or imagined blank space stands in for pianos, pool halls, and trains. Jarrod Barnes offers simple but inspired costumes to allow the ensemble to represent, in turn, a high Creole family, New Orleans street vendors, night club party-goers, inhabitants of Limbo, and more.

Flashy production numbers fill the show, with direction and choreography by Kelli Foster Warder. Photo by Dan Norman.

It is a coincidence that Theater Latté Da is staging Jelly’s Last Jam at the same time that Hadestown is playing on Broadway, and shortly after its touring company finished its visit to the Orpheum Theatre across town. Both productions feature a primarily African American cast, a principal setting connected to death and the underworld, strong New Orleans influences, and a mixture of jazz, blues, and Dixieland. There are sharp differences, of course, with Hadestownbeing a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice (and Hades/Persephone) myth while Jelly’s Last Jam is based on the life of a (self-mythologizing) music celebrity of a century ago, but the overlaps are hard to miss.

Latté Da’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam is not only a superb production, but also a timely reflection on authenticity and appropriation, racial identity and racial pride. If you come, do be warned, however, that the show includes various ethnic slurs, including the “N word,” which is used throughout the play – mostly, but not only, by Morton, generally as a way of showing the characters’ racist attitudes.

The Theater Latté Da production of Jelly’s Last Jam plays at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through May 8, 2022.


Brian Bix