Voices from the Fringe: Singer/Performer Victoria Gordon

Making her Fringe debut this year is singer, actor and Los Angeles native Victoria Gordon, who is bringing her cabaret show to the Complex in Hollywood. The piece, entitled Victoria Gordon — Live at the Hollywood Fringe, is a combination of musical performance and comedy.

In anticipation of her upcoming appearance, Ms. Gordon spoke with Better Lemons about her show and her all-around Fringe experience.

VICTORIA GORDON - LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGEBetter Lemons: You performed this show before, right? What’s different about this Fringe production?
Victoria Gordon: I did perform a version of this show before — in September 2018 at the Broad in Santa Monica. But I knew that wasn’t the finished version. As soon as I got the video of that show back, I started taking notes to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t. And I used that to refresh and expand my repertoire, which also led me to write new monologues. At the end of the day, while some of the songs are the same, almost everything around them is different.

BL: And the music… How were the pieces selected?
VG: Everything came to me differently. I love musicals and listen to cast albums all the time, so sometimes, a song just hits me and I think, “I have to sing that!” That’s how the song “Another Round,” from Bright Star, ended up in the show - I was at the Ahmanson, watching the cast perform it, and I just knew I had to do it. Others are old favorites, like “It Might As Well Be Spring,” or characters I’ve dreamed of playing, like Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel (that’s how I wound up with “Wherever He Ain’t,” one of Mabel’s big moments). And then there are the songs I never imagined singing, but someone else suggested and I quickly realized that they were right. “I Am What I Am” is one I never saw myself performing, but my sister told me I had to give it a try, and now it’s a cornerstone of my act — thanks, Natalie!

BL: How about the band? Did they accompany you in last year’s show?
VG: Two out of three, yes! I met my Musical Director-slash-drummer, Sam Webster, through two contacts: my arranger and a studio musician I trust. They both recommended Sam, so I contacted him and we hit it off right away. He brought in both my bass player, Chelsea Stevens, and pianist, Adam Bravo. Adam is new for this show. He wasn’t available in the fall, but I’m a huge fan already!

BL: Is this your first time at the Fringe? How are you enjoying the experience?
VG: This is my first Fringe as a participant. I had no idea what to expect going in, but I’m really thrilled to be part of it! I’ve met so many incredible people and learned so much about theater and performance. This is such a great and inclusive community.

BL: What makes “Live” a good fit for the Fringe? What can audiences expect?
VG: My show is a throwback. I’ve been describing it lately as an “old-school nightclub act,” back in the day when lounge singers were off-duty Broadway performers. It’s not something that many people my age do anymore, but it’s the only music I’ve ever wanted to sing, and I think Fringe audiences are used to less-than-expected offerings.

Audiences can expect to laugh a lot — usually with me, but sometimes at me—and to hear showtunes they know and love (or maybe a few they don’t know yet!). It’s also just a fun show. I modeled it after Bernadette Peters and Jane Krakowski’s shows, and what I love about them is that they’re just enjoyable shows, filled with entertaining stories and great songs. Nothing too dramatic or depressing; it’s a lighthearted but still touching show.

BL: Tell us a bit about your background.
VG: I grew up in Los Angeles, as did both of my parents, so all of my grandparents were very active in my childhood. My mom’s family was all musical; my dad’s family worked in TV comedy. Both sides were very accomplished, so I got to see what it really takes to be successful in music or entertainment. I grew up playing the violin, but later switched to singing, and haven’t looked back since! I always wanted to be an actress and singer, and got into writing in my teens. I started producing comedic film and TV projects for Amazon while still in college, and post-college, that became my full-time job. But when the opportunity to stage a solo cabaret came up, I jumped at the chance, and Victoria Gordon Live was born. It’s been a great way to put everything I know — performance, production, and live events — into practice at once.

BL: Since the Fringe is a collaboration, what other shows intrigue you?
VG: So many! I have a folder filled with sixty-ish Fringe flyers and they all sound like great shows. I am especially excited for Bunny the Elf, because Christi Pedigo has brought so much sunshine to Fringe this year; Leaving Prince Charming, because Lara Repko’s story is so personal and moving; and Batter Up! My Brain on Baseball, because the idea of a baseball trivia show is just so Fringe.

Victoria Gordon — Live at the Hollywood Fringe plays June 6 (preview) through June 27 at the Complex Hollywood’s OMR Theatre, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd. Information and ticketing can be obtained on the Fringe site.

Thelma Houston's Heart is Full of Love - and She Loves to Entertain

Some artists and their signature songs keep coming back, revised, renewed, remixed.

Ms. Thelma Houston and her 1976 hit “Don't Leave Me This Way” never get old; both artist and song always seeming fresh and brand-new. On the eve of her upcoming Los Angeles appearance in MY MOTOWN MEMORIES & MORE! at the Nate Holden Theatre October 15, 2017; we had the wonderful opportunity to relive some of Ms. Houston's memories of her half-a-century's worth of performing.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview!

You began singing in church, so you must have been fairly comfortable performing in front of an audience. How big an audience did it have to grow to, to make you not feel as comfortable? Did you ever get stage fright?

I wouldn't categorize it as "stage fright," but stage or performance "excitement" always.

Did you have any formalized training? Or would you credit your gospel singing experience as your musical education? 

I played flute in my junior high school band. Until last year, I was still studying with my vocal coach.

What vocal exercises or preparation do you still religiously maintain?

Unfortunately, my vocal coach passed away last year. But exercise is just as important for me. It gives me energy, and the aerobics exercise, in particular, helps with my breathing. 

Who were your singing idols growing up?

Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne, Sarah Vaughan.

What do you remember of the Grammy Awards ceremony when they announced your name for "Best R&B Vocal Performance"?

That I wasn't there when my name was called. I was home. I got a phone call telling me.

You had success with Capitol Records, then ABC/Dunhill Records before switching to Motown. Did you pursue a contract with Motown? Or did Motown go after you?

I was asked to join their MoWest label when they moved from Detroit.

“Don't Leave Me This Way” by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert was first recorded in 1975 by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (w/Teddy Pendergrass). Did you ever meet Gamble, Huff or Gilbert?

Yes, I met Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Aside from your wonderful vocal contributions, what else would you attribute the longevity of “Don't Leave Me This Way” to: The disco era? Being included in the soundtrack of Looking for Mr. Goodbar? Being the unofficial theme song in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

I think it was a good song, with a great production by Hal Davis, and I think it was the timing.

You have performed at numerous Pride festivals throughout the years. In 2015, you were honored as the Grand Marshall of the Long Beach Gay Pride Parade. Tell us what you were feeling riding and waving in that parade?

I grew up in Long Beach from the age of 10, so I was waving to old friends and making new ones.

 What advice would the 2016 Thelma Houston give to the young starting-out Thelma Houston 50 years ago?

It's going to be "groovy." Don't worry!!!

What are some of the best advice given to you that you still adhere to and share with others?

Enjoy what you're doing.

Where else do you plan to sing the roof off of with MY MOTOWN MEMORIES & MORE!?

Wherever I can. As big as it can accommodate and still intimate enough to tell the story.

Any singer you'd love to duet with?

Haven't really given it any thought.

Other than, obviously, “Don't Leave Me This Way;" what would your favorite song be?

I know this is "cheesy," but “Don't Leave Me This Way" is that song for me. I love seeing the joy on the faces of the audience while they're singing along. I never get enough!!!

Thank you again for this interview! I look forward to hearing you sing and speak your MOTOWN MEMORIES & MORE!

For ticket availability for Ms. Houston's one-night-only performance in Los Angeles, log onto www.itsmyseat.com or www.ChrisIsaacsonPresents.com

Michael-Leon Wooley & Friends Again Singing for Suppers in the October 14th BTTR Benefit

Actor/singer/activist Michael-Leon Wooley will be gathering his Broadway cohorts and presenting their collective musical theatre talents in his fourth benefit for Hope of the ValleyBROADWAY TO THE RESCUE: A BENEFIT FOR THE HOMELESS.  This one-night event October 14, 2017 at the Montalban Theater will feature multi-credited Broadway and Los Angeles performers, including Tony Award-winner Lillias White, Tony nominees John Tartaglia and Sharon McKnight, Drama Desk winner Aaron Lazar, and more yet to be announced.
The eternally busy Michael-Leon carved out some time from the current New York City project he's involved in to answer in-depth my probing inquiries.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Michael-Leon!
BROADWAY TO THE RESCUE: A BENEFIT FOR THE HOMELESS benefiting Hope of the Valley is your brainchild. What initially brought you and Hope of the Valley together?
It started a couple of years ago after the death of someone really close to me. A friend was diagnosed with a horrible brain tumor, that took him eight weeks after diagnosis. I had a difficult time bouncing back, and despite a successful career, was feeling a bit lost. Someone suggested that since my friend was an advocate for the homeless, why didn't I do something for the homeless too. So I googled “homeless" and “volunteer.” Hope of the Valley was the first thing to come up. I contacted them and they said, "Come down and help serve lunch at the Mission." So I went. And after a few weeks, I realized how incredible they were, and was blown away by their extraordinary, tireless work with the homeless. I asked them one day what they did for fundraisers. They told me a guy once came and sang some songs and it was great. And I said, "Let me help you out," and came clean for the first time about my career and what I've done. I put together a small benefit at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood, called my Broadway friends in L.A., and we sang and blew the roof off the place. It was a great night and we raised about $3,000 and have only grown since. Now, headed into our fourth show, we've raised about $100,000 in under two years, and hope to do more. My work with Hope Valley is what I'm most proud of these days, even more than anything in my career. And I was honored a couple of weeks ago when asked to join Hope of the Valley's Board of Directors. Awful long way from serving lunches. Oh, I said, "Yes."
Heading into your fourth show, this one-nighter at the Montalban Theater, what challenges of your first event have you mastered now in putting together this fourth show?
Well, it's funny. As we master some things, as the show grows; we learn there's new things to master. Getting sponsors is part of the job. Picking the right date and venue. We are always a little behind, but we never worry about the show.  We have no doubt that that part comes together. These performers are such pros and at the top of their game, they all have a fearlessness when it comes to it. And that's been a very cool byproduct of BTTR. We've had to assemble a huge ensemble to flesh out the show and some big numbers. Young performers from around Los Angeles, they call our show 'Broadway Bootcamp.' In rehearsal, they are asked to step up in a big way. We move at a quick pace. The Broadway vets are bringing it, and they have to bring it too. It takes a lot of courage and work to be toe-to-toe with everyone on stage… and they do it in spades!!!
Will there be a theme threading through this show? 
Well, we've had different themes in the past. Disney, Christmas, gospel. But this time we're going back to our roots. Most of the performances October 14th are numbers that these performers actually did on Broadway! A lot you'll never see anywhere else but here. Some are flying in from NYC, some are taking time from their TV and film work to revisit their Broadway performances.
Lillias White is singing from THE LIFE, the song that got her a Tony Award. Tony nominees John Tartaglia and Sharon White are doing their numbers. Not to mention songs from HAIRSPRAY, WICKED, RENT, CATS, A CHORUS LINE, MEMPHIS, HAIR and more! I get all excited just talking about it!
Who gets to pick the song selections? 
That job falls on me. And it is my favorite part of the process. And though I started BTTR by myself, the amazing Kymberli McKanna came on board as another producer. She's always great about bringing to mind a show or a song I would never have thought of. I end up listening to a lot of Broadway stations on Sirius and Spotify. And it's kinda cool when a number pops up of me singing.

Do you know what you'll be performing? Or is that a secret/surprise?

Not sure yet, I sometimes think I'd just like to host the show and put it together. But I would get my head handed to me on a platter if I didn't do something. I have an idea for this show. It should be real fun.
As one who's performed in cabarets and piano bars in both New York and L.A., how would you differentiate the New York audiences from L.A. patrons? Differences can't be subtle, right?
Well, I think audiences in general are all just out to have a good time. I think before the curtain rises, whether in NYC or L.A. or Kalamazoo, everyone is hoping for a thrilling experience. Though that doesn't always happen, that's what we're all rooting for. I had as much fun at HAMILTON at the Pantages as I did at LEGALLY BLONDE at the Cupcake Theatre, a small theatre in the NOHO arts district. Before the curtain rises on any show, I'm like, "C'mon guys! Bring it!!!"
I will say the biggest compliment I get from BTTR is "Wow, I feel like I'm in New York!!!" That always is a homerun to me!
You started playing piano when you were just five years old. Did you twin brother Marcus-Leon share your love for the keys?
LOL. My Marcus can't really carry a tune. (Thank god! One singer per family, please!) BUT funny thing. He works with computers for a living. He is as talented on the keyboard of a computer as I am on the keyboard of a piano.
I read in your bio that you auditioned 107 times before landing your first role in the national tour company of PURLIE. Which of those 107 auditions was the most nerve-wrecking? The 105th? The 1st? The 106th?
HA, HA! They all were nerve-wrecking. I always hated dance calls. Sometimes auditions are way too early. Sometimes my songs were way too high. And sometimes, I'd go home with my tail between my legs. But I'm grateful for all those auditions 'cause they taught me how to audition, what works, what doesn't, what to do, what not to do. I love walking in to audition for a musical these days. I go in with a 'take no prisoners' agenda and a 'make new friends' attitude. (And I really hope everyone in the waiting room, up for my job, gets to hear me.) LOL!!!!
Would you share some fun stories of working with the genius Susan Stroman in the 2000 Broadway revival of THE MUSIC MAN
I love Stro (as we call her). When I first got a call asking me to audition for MUSIC MAN, I didn't think they really wanted me. There weren't many roles for a 6'4 black man in that show as far as I can see, HA!!!! But they couldn't find the bass sound they were looking for (for the barbershop quartet) and came around to ask me again. They'd already cast the other members of the quartet (Blake Hammond, John Sloman, and Jack Doyle), and they were looking for the right bass. I'll never forget going in that day. I had just closed a Broadway show the night before. I learned the song "Lida Rose" and had to sing it with the guys. It was a pretty exciting moment. We sounded like a match made in heaven and I'll never forget the look on Broadway musical director David Chase's face when we first started singing. They all spoke at the table for a bit. Then Stro came up to me and said, "Welcome to River City!” Hired me right in the room. I was so excited to land another Broadway show the day after one closes. (We always think we're never gonna work again. LOL!) I hugged her and picked her up in the air. To this day when I see her, I still hug her and always pick her up in the air.
DREAMGIRLS (both the stage musical and the movie) is a top musical favorite of mine. In the film, you sang "Take the Long Way Home" as Tiny Joe Dixon. Tell us some of your memorable moments working with director Bill Condon and the “up-and-coming” actresses who played Deena, Lorrell and Effie.
Well, Bill, he's amazing, the nicest, the sweetest, the best. It was my first movie and he made me feel right at home. When I first saw Beyoncé, my first thought was, "Damn! That is the most beautiful person I've ever seen in my life, even in a robe with her hair in curlers. She was as sweet as can be. Jennifer (Hudson) and I, for both of us, it was our first film, and felt a bit like newbies. I knew she was going to get an Oscar. The role's just built that way. And Anika (Noni Rose), we met on the first day of shooting. She's from Broadway, so we hit it off right away - having a bunch of mutual friends. We're still really good friends and she comes over to my house for parties and dinners. And I love the fact that we got to star in a movie together, the Disney animated movie The Princess and The Frog. Anika as the princess and me as Louis the alligator. We're both so proud of that film. She's been dying to be a part of BTTR, but has had work conflicts. But I'm gonna get her!

Which do you prefer: Getting immediate response from a live audience, emoting in front of a camera or sitting on a stool in front of a script with headsets on? 
I love my voice-over work; last Friday I was working on a cartoon. Working on a few episodes of Bravest Warriors. And my character had over 100 lines in this session that would be a few hours. A moment well into the second hour of a long day, I was trying to stifle something that kept making me laugh so hard, I had to do a number of takes. I had to smile for a moment, my life is pretty cool. Being in front of the camera is great. I love it, but nothing beats a live audience. Laughter, screaming, applause, cheering and standing. It's all addictive. And though this career is hard and demanding and challenging, it's so worth, it's when, like October 14, well...
You know, sometimes I stand in my kitchen and cook fried chicken because it sounds like applause, and go, "Thank you, thank you! I love you! Thank you!"
How soon do you start planning your fifth BROADWAY TO THE RESCUE: A BENEFIT FOR THE HOMELESS?
HA! Well, I'm thinking about it a little now (and I shouldn't), but chances are talks will begin at the cast party for this show. Always happens that way after people have a few drinks.
Can you give us a hint as to what kind of craziness the Montalban Theater audience can expect October 14th?
Well, there are a few performances that I may go out in the audience and watch. Aside from numbers from WAITRESS and AVENUE Q that are thrilling, SMOKEY JOE'S, WICKED, HAIRPSRAY, MEMPHIS numbers are sure to stop the show. And Lillias White will blow the roof off the place. Every single performance is a tour de force, not a weak link in the bunch.
Thank you again, Michael-Leon!
Any time, see ya on the 14th.
For available tickets for this October 14th fundraiser (including a silent auction and a champagne and dessert reception), log onto www.BroadwaytotheRescue.com
For more information on the work that Hope of the Valley continues to do, or to make a donation to them, log onto www.hopeofthevalley.org

A Very Candid Alexandra Billings Wants Only Screams of Laughter

Transparent star Alexandra Billings' latest autobiographical performance piece S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET will be playing at The Renberg Theatre opening this Thursday June 1, 2017. Acting since 1968, Alexandra can legitimately claim that she's the first transgender actress to perform practically every role she's taken on.

Alexandra took a moment from her busy rehearsal week to answer a few questions.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Alexandra.

You will be performing your show S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET at The Renberg Theatre. What can audiences expect to experience?

The show is about my personal journey into my own humanness.  It's a musical autobiography that centers around my wife Chrisanne, and my marriage, and my parents' marriage.  We all met and married around the same age, as well as, the relationship between myself and my younger male self. 

You've worked with, and at, The Los Angeles LGBT Center's Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center's Renberg Theatre before. What elements of this place keeps bringing you back?

The history of it.  There is great LGBT history that lives in the walls of these buildings, and so we get to continue that by telling various queer stories. 

You've written stage shows, and have a PBS documentary on your fabulous life. Would it be safe to say your life's an open book?

No.  It's not.  I know it seems that way, but it's not.  There's a lot of stuff I keep to myself. 

Your website has admissions from yourself that's very candid. (i.e., You once spent an entire day showing your vagina to Joseph Fiennes.) Is there nothing you refuse to cop to?

No, there isn't.  I'll cop to it all.  As long as I did it. 

Who has your role model growing up? Was there a celebrity that you looked up to?

A celebrity?  There's people I admired.  I admire Judy Garland, but I certainly don't want her life. But looking back, I did lead her life; though I just moved through it a little better than she did.

Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Your father Robert Billings was the musical director for the L.A. Civic Light Opera House for almost 20 years. Growing up surrounded by music and musicians, did you ever want to be anything other than in show biz?

Yes, I wanted to be a teacher, because that's what both my parents were.  And now I am. 

You earned your MFA from Cal State Long Beach. Was that in Theatre?

Well, yes, Theater Arts, but also, pedagogy.  

Did you have a 'practical' fall-back occupation?

I could say teaching, but teaching was never steady.  Prostitution... that was steady. 

When did Scott Billings become Alexandra Billings?

That's a loaded question.  There's no delineation.  There's no line.  Transitioning is not like shoe shopping.  You don't go out looking for flats one day and end up with a pair of heels. 

You started your drag career as Shanté at the now defunct Club Victoria in Chicago. What was the Drag Scene like in Chicago (your other childhood home) in the early 1980s?

It was magical and sparkly and beautiful.  And then suddenly, it wasn't. 

What were the circumstances in which you first met another transgender person? Before you started doing drag?

I stumbled into a club in Chicago called Club Victoria.  They were having a talent night, which I assumed meant "Talent," like singing and dancing.  It didn't mean that at all.  So I decided to strip. I showed up in the dressing room with ten of what I assumed were Las Vegas showgirls.  Until they started talking, and then I knew I was home.

Please excuse me if this next question is stupid or offensive - Would you say that identifying one's self as a drag queen would be a baby step for a questioning transgender boy?

It's actually kind of a great question.  I would say that it's less about whether it's a step forward or not, and more about a lack of education.  If a trans boy identified himself as a drag queen, that denotes behavior, and not spiritual movement.  So let's just be careful about how we talk about the younger trans generation.  Let's be clear.  

Would you share an experience you had that you just had to laugh, or you would start crying?

My whole life is ironic and makes me laugh. 

Was, and is it, a heavy mantle to shoulder as the first transgender female to be cast in a transgender female television role (2003's ABC-TV Movie: Romy and Michelle - A New Beginning)?

Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

We found out that's not true.  The real first trans person made herself aware to me when she read that I was claiming that.  She was in, like a Battlestar Galactica episode, or something like that.  I'll have to find out. 

You can currently on staff at your alma mater Cal State Long Beach as an associate professor of theatre. Do you teach Viewpoints as well there?

Yes.  That's all I teach.  And I was recently hired at USC. 

Can you describe for the uninitiated in three sentences or less, what Viewpoints principles are?

Viewpoints is the matrix of human behavior. Period. 

As an activist for transgender rights, what do you see as the next important step in achieving complete transgender rights?

What do you mean by "complete"?  In order for us to live in full equality, we're going to have to deal with each other on a much deeper level.  The trans community is going to have to be more visible, and our allies are going to have to be more vocal.  And that's true of every marginalized community.  I think.

Humor must be a major element in your daily life. Would you agree that a funny delivery gets a serious message across much easier than a serious lecturing one?

I think a truthful delivery gets the message across. You're not funny if you're trying to be funny. 

Besides the already renewed season four of Transparent, what projects does Alexandra Billings have in the immediate future?

S/HE & ME opening this weekend at The Renberg Theater.  And I start teaching at USC this Fall. 

What would be the most satisfying audience reaction to S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET for you be?

That they don't walk out screaming.  That would be satisfying. 

Thank you again, Alexandra! I look forward to experiencing your THEATRICAL CABARET!

For ticket availability and show schedule through June 11, 2017, log onto


Inside the Creative Minds Behind MEMORY 5D+ - A Harmonic, Yet Explosive Experience

I had the pleasure of sitting down with four of the creatives of MEMORY 5D+ - AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at their satellite production offices in Alhambra - from China, its creator Ulan Xuerong, musicians Erkin Abdulla and Lucina Yue; and from California, writer John Hughes.

With the wonderful assist of Eileen Cheng who translated for the three Mandarin artists, we were able to get noteworthy insights into the makings of MEMORY 5D+, which will be having its world premiere at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium May 26 and 27.

Ulan, the founder and current general manager of her production company China Film HuaTeng Movies & TV Culture Company (CFH) shrewdly sought out contributors familiar with Western tastes in entertainment to introduce the Yin-&-Yang-rooted, classic Mandarin arts to non-Asian audiences. Quite evident in the round table interview, just in first-impression appearances, the cultural mix from traditional Mandarin to blended Chinese and Western to Americanized Western - a perfect example of Yin & Yang in everyday life. Ulan (the total female Yin) carried a lovely air of guarded formality dressed most stylishly from her striking jade jewelry to her shiny silver oxfords. Lucina and Erkin possessed a open ease in their respective smart, fashionable attire. John (the total male Yang), accustomed to working behind the scenes as a senior visual effects artist at Dreamworks Animation, attended in comfortable casual jeans and a Oakley-logo-ed tee. The words 'harmony' and 'love' (and the ideas behind them) were brought up repeatedly in their descriptions of MEMORY 5D+.

The Tao philosophy of Yin & Yang serves as the basis of MEMORY 5D+, with complementary opposites, that when combined, fuse to form a stronger unit of cosmic strengths.

Yin's attributes include qualities of darkness, softness, femininity, being cold and wet; and is associated with water, earth, moon and nighttime. Yang - hardness, masculinity, being hot and dry; and is linked with fire, sky, the sun and daytime.  Results are harmonic against the background of universal creation, the opposing forces combining to form the mountains and rivers and other harmonic elements of nature.

The title itself MEMORY 5D+ refers to Ulan's recollections of her beloved Chinese cultural heritage, presented in five dimensions via creative designer Tom E. Marzullo's multi-dimensional, immersive, state-of-the-art concert production techniques (including high-def digital video and lighting, surround sound, lasers and aromatic sensory technology). Don't worry, no 3-D glasses needed to be worn. But do expect show-stopping visuals from Tom (whose own impressive resumé includes designing and directing international tours for Justin Bieber, Prince, Luther Vandross and KISS).

Ulan trained as a child to become an actress. "Acting is in my blood."The beginning seeds of MEMORY 5D+ came to Ulan decades before, but she finally started working to realize her vision just three years ago. Ulan wanted to share her centuries-old Chinese tradition via music, dance and visuals. Ulan founded CFH to implement her worldwide delivery of her proud, creative histories. Ulan chose the specific musical instruments in the show with their very distinctive sounds as to how they fit into enhance the MEMORY 5D+ story line. Ulan's hoping the Pasadena audiences like the show. "It would mean we did it right!" Afterwards, CFH plans to tour MEMORY 5D+ internationally.

John credits yun-qi (Chinese for 'luck') and networking (between friends and friends of friends), that put him together with Ulan. One day, John came home to find his wife (who's Chinese to his Liverpudlian lineage) chatting with Ulan in their living room. After hearing Ulan's passionate, very clear description of what was to become MEMORY 5D+, John made the easy choice of signing on to script and shape Ulan's vision. "Although it's a show focused on traditional Chinese music, it's also highly visual in a way that I haven't really seen before." John has sharpened his experienced eye for visuals working on big Hollywood productions (including Kung Fu Panda 2, Moana, I Am Legend, Spider-Man 3). Actually, the choice wasn't that easy as he had to decline work on the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.

John describes MEMORY 5D+ as immersive. "You're in the environment embedded in the visual performance of the show, a visual experience that's larger than the stage, surrounding you, above you, behind you, filling the auditorium." In the process of adapting this unique Chinese show for Western audiences, John changed as little as possible, instead adding visual touches throughout to clarify the communication of the eastern Taoist philosophy of Yin & Yang for Westerners' more accessible comprehension. In MEMORY 5D+, Yin and Yang transform into competing characters for the affection of a young maiden. The 'good guy' and 'bad guy' don't 'win' in the absolute sense. In MEMORY 5D+, love and harmony remain the prominent through-line with no winners or losers. John commented, "My job was quite simple." He made simple adjustments to the order of the twelve segments of the show. "Lots of the elements were already in place and worked very well." Despite also being the visual effects artist for Oscar-winning animations Frozen and Big Hero 6, John left all visual effects decisions to Tom and his live concert expertise.

Ulan credits John with making her original ideas more dramatic, more striking; making the storyline more consistent in reaching the hearts of the audience.

The 43-member cast of MEMORY 5D+ will most skillfully demonstrate examples of Chinese performance arts - Chinese acrobatics, Dolan Muqam (an integration of ethnic group Uygur's singing, dancing and music), Khoomei (Tuvan throat singing), Shadow Play, Suzhou Pingtan (storytelling and ballad singing), Tibertan folk songs and Urtin Duu (Mongolian Long Tune).

As part of this four million dollar production, seventeen of China's revered musical performers (considered national treasures) will perform their artistry on rare traditional instruments. Test your own musical instrument acumen on how many of these musical devices from Chinese history you have heard of. MEMORY 5D+ will include guqin (Chinese zither), ‘cowboy' flute, gijak, guzheng, konghou, morin khuur (Mongolioan horsehead fiddle), pipa (Chinese lute), Tuva drum (Shamanic drum), and two chordophones - Topshur and Yekele.

Lucina Yue will be playing the Konghou (Chinese harp). Lucina has mastered four different types of harps - the modern Konghou, the old Konhou, the western harp, and the triple harp. A former actress, Lucina's virtuosity of the contemporary Chinese Konghou has led her to many firsts - performing at the Lincoln Center, at the United Nations headquarters and at New York Fashion Week.  Lucinda also has the honor of being the first Konghou performer to appear on Chinese stamps.

Guitarist Erkin Abdulla will be performing his original compositions in MEMORY 5D+, combining his Flamenco proficiency with the essence of Uygur's Dolan Muqam, Turkish folk songs and hints of Brazilian samba and Southern American Blues. Erikin continues striving to make folk music more inclusive, more modern integrating additional international musical elements and ancient Chinese musical forms into western styles. Erkin entertained with a sampling of Turkish folk songs at the press round table.

For an insight to where in the Yin & Yang scale you yourself might fall in, come with an open mind to MEMORY 5D+ - AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at the Pasadena Auditorium May 26th or 27th and let it be filled with new knowledge of a culture you might have thought you've known all about. For an unique exposure to centuries of Chinese culture, concise and abridged, combined with an immersive light and sensory show experience, log onto Memory5D.com and all Ticketmaster outlets for available tickets.

Wayne Moore On Making His DREAMS A Reality

A popular LA cabaret and theatre mainstay for over a quarter of a century, singer/songwriter/musical director Wayne Moore has revamped his 1992 cabaret act FREEWAY DREAMS into a full-length musical production called, wait for it... FREEWAY DREAMS. Write Act Repertory will be producing it in their new space, Brickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood, beginning May 19, 2017.

We had the chance to chat with the ever-youthful Wayne on how his early dreams become real DREAMS.

Thank you, Wayne, for doing this interview with myself and Better Lemons.

Hi, Gil!  Thanks for asking these questions.

You world premiered FREEWAY DREAMS in 1992 @ Tom Rolla's Gardenia Cabaret in Hollywood. How does it feel to be revisiting one of your early creations?

It feels great to revisit FREEWAY DREAMS.  The original show at The Gardenia was a revue I put together for my friends and myself and was so much fun to do!  It had “situations” that framed the songs, but not a real script.  Robert McGarity offered to produce a CD of the show and that's how it became so popular.  This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to improve and solidify the show.

Have you performed/produced FREEWAY DREAMS again since 1992? 

I haven't performed the show since then, although I've sung a lot of songs from FREEWAY in a lot of bars!  I kept being asked what the script was like.  Well, there really wasn't a script until now.

Only a true Angeleno could have written FREEWAY DREAMS. Just two films come to mind when thinking of L.A. freeways - Steve Martin's L.A. Story from 1991 and Damien Chazelle's La La Land from last year. Did the freeway scene from LA Story inspire/influence FREEWAY DREAMS, by any chance?

I loved L.A. Story!  The coffee ordering scene still cracks me up.  I haven't seen La La Land yet.  I hear the opening number with mad dancing in and out of cars is terrific.  But that's not our show.  We're terrific in a different way!

You are now adapting your what-was-originally a cabaret act into a full theatrical production. You didn't happen to be stuck on a freeway when you first thought of your first nuclei of FREEWAY DREAMS?

Being a home-bred Los Angelean, I've been stuck on a freeway more times that I can count! But the songs I tend to write when stuck on the freeway aren't suitable for musical theater!

Which song was FREEWAY DREAMS' first?

The first song written directly for the show was the opening number “Freeway.”

Can you share with us some of your processes of coming up with such FREEWAY DREAMS ditties as ‘Manic-Depressive Blues,' ‘A Big Woman Needs A Big Man,' ‘…And A Pizza To Go,' ‘My Superman' and ‘What If The Other Guy Wins?'?

“A Big Woman Needs A Big Man” was written for Brenda Moore, my ex-wife, cabaret partner and best friend.  She actually blushed when I played it for her – and being a dark black woman, that's hard for her to do! - but she certainly throws herself into the song now.  

“And A Pizza To Go” was created because I wanted to write a comic opera piece.  I went around the corner to an Italian restaurant near where I lived, grabbed a to-go menu and wrote it in about ten minutes.  

“My Superman” may be my most popular song.  Believe it or not, it was originally written for Rose Marie!

“What If The Other Guy Wins?” didn't make it into this production.  I re-wrote the script completely and it just didn't fit. I hope I've created four real, but funny human beings to be stuck next to each other on the freeway.  (They are there for so long, they start showing up in each other's fantasies.)  A lot of re-writing went on to accommodate the new premise.

With all the clever lyrics you write, how old were you when you first realized you possessed a sense of humor that could possibly make you a living?

I was a terrible geek growing up with few friends.  I wrote my first song when I was six years old and music was always pouring out of me. But I didn't learn I could be funny until I went to L.A. City College.  It was quite a revelation!  I still can't quite believe it!

As a frequent contributor to the L.A. Theatre and cabaret scene over the past 25+ years, can you tell us the characteristics of live entertainment in Los Angeles back in 1992 that are still evident/relevant today? 

There are very few venues for cabaret performances left in L.A.  And the classic piano bar set-up I thrived in is pretty much gone for now.  This kind of entertainment happens in cycles, so I'm hopeful some new piano bars will pop up.  With the abolition of 99-seat theater in L.A., the whole scene is shifting. Nevertheless, there is some wonderful work being done in theater companies around town.  I love seeing that.

Wayne, you're a singer, songwriter, actor and musical director. Which is your primary passion?

My primary passion has always been song-writing.  Nothing like it.

Where would you like to take FREEWAY DREAMS to next?

Write/Act is considering taking the show to its off-Broadway venue this summer.  I'd like to get the show published so small theater companies looking for something new can discover us!

Any immediate projects for Wayne Moore you can tell us?

Wayne Moore projects:  I wrote the music for a show by Chandler Warren called ADAM & EVE & STEVE which moved to England after a good run at Theater 68 here in L.A.  We had a sold-out run in London and they're planning a tour.  I have new shows completed with two other writers, and my own solo epic SOUNDSTAGE is, at last, ready to go.  

As one who's made a fairly steady living in the entertainment field for over a quarter of a century now, what sage advice would you give to someone coming to our City of Angels with the goal to grab the elusive brass ring?

Sage advice?  Go elsewhere, I fear.  It's true I've never had what my father insisted on calling a “real job,” but looking back, I'm not sure how it all happened or what I did to make it happen.  This sounds corny, but the best advice I can give is:, to always do your best work, stay as nice as you can to everyone, and keep your eyes and ears open for your next opportunity.

Thank you again, Wayne! 

Thanks, Gil

To share in Wayne's DREAMS through June 11, 2017; log onto


A Forgotten Master Reclaims His Legacy

There is a transcendent moment when the singers give themselves over to the song. They are not just singing, they are also revealing themselves, their deepest pains and most ecstatic dreams. Sometimes for a moment you can see them get lost in the music and become someone else.

Lee Solomon sings at the Jazz Vocal Workshop (all photos by E. Lorenzetti)

This is as you might expect not as effortless as it appears. It works requires practice, practice and more practice. And nearly every Tuesday night for years now, a very unassuming man named Howlett Smith has pushed his students at the World Stage performance and gallery space in Leimert Park to work harder at their craft – and while he isn't cruel, he is very demanding. The workshop is attended by both professional singers and inexperienced performers – he says he often prefers newcomers because they have fewer bad habits – but whatever their expertise, everyone here calls him Mr. Smith.

Even if you don't like jazz, you probably know who Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk were. You probably don't know Mr. Smith, 84 – a composer who has written more songs than he cares to count. After you begin to hear about him and his expansive career, you'll be wondering why you don't know his name too. Mr. Smith's most important legacy might not be found in his resume or songs – but with his students, who work with him either privately or at the workshop. They come to learn from the man who several of them describe as a "master."

"I tell them all the time in class that when I'm out of here, when I'm gone and can't monitor what you're doing, you will do what you want to do," Smith says. "I already know this – but I still want you to learn what I've learned, and learn my legacy and pass it on keep it alive" or else, he warns, "be stuck with inferior music."

Born blind in racially segregated Phoenix, Smith already knew he wanted to be a musician by the time he was 6, and when he first heard the Nat King Cole trio, he knew what kind of musician he was: a jazz pianist. Smith has said that jazz was his salvation, and if hearing classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz intimidated him, it was Cole who gave him the courage to keep playing.

"I already knew that I wanted to be a musician, I knew that always," he tells me in a small apartment in Palms, sitting near the two metal file cabinets that contain the only copies of the hundreds of compositions he has written through the years. They are his archives. He has no idea exactly how many songs he has written because, as he says, "I don't know cause I'm afraid I'd be disappointed." He laughs when he says this – Mr. Smith is not a bitter man.

I first encountered Mr. Smith a few years ago at the World Stage's old space which is across the street from the new one. At the time, The World Stage's very existence was threatened, and everyone there was a bit nervous about whether it would continue – but they survived, and the new space is more spacious and inviting than the old one. What struck me most that night was seeing Smith work with Yolanda, a woman who suffered a stroke, on stage at the workshop. She didn't give up either. She came that night in her wheelchair, still working her craft. Smith heard her familiar voice, and said, "Yolanda, I'm so happy to see you. Sing a song for me."

Yolanda sang "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake, a song Mr. Smith chose for her to work on. He instructed her on what exact line to take a breath – "here and there, everywhere." Smith sang with her, reminding her again and again to breathe – "breathe, breathe breathe" said Yolanda, drilling it into herself. "What's happening is you're not feeling the music – you've got to feel the music," he told her.

"It's not an easy song, Mr. Smith," Yolanda said. He replied, "I know it's not an easy song, but I will show you no mercy." He paused for a few seconds, then added, "You're going to be a good singer, Yolanda." She was visibly tired after her workout with Mr. Smith – she released a great breath, and relaxed when she was finally done.

"You have to evaluate people as a teacher or as a coach, and you know that if you tell them too much, they're going to get discouraged," Smith says. "When they deserve it, you offer them praise." He tells me this in the compact studio he has in his apartment where three keyboards and a Macintosh compete for space, leaving a small gap between them just barely big enough for Mr. Smith to navigate. There are hundreds of cassettes stacked in neat rows along the wall, and a few feet away, are those two file cabinets containing his life's work. Numerous certificates and awards from the likes of former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Mayor James J. Hahn are displayed on the walls. Mr. Smith claims he doesn't care about any of that stuff, that somebody just puts it up there for him. It is a very simple place, not unlike the man himself who tends to be very direct and not always expansive when talking about his life and career.

He offers private lessons here, but you have to audition to get in, and he has turned away a few students over the years. Anyone can come to the Tuesday night workshop at the World Stage, but wherever he teaches, Mr. Smith doesn't want anyone to ever quit, but to persevere and work harder. "The people I work with – none of them work as hard as I want them to work on practicing everyday and paying attention to their craft and I wish they would work harder and get more serious about it because you can't do music without practice and you must practice industriously," Smith says.

Mr. Smith was already playing and practicing piano by the time he was 8 – he'd wanted to start a few years earlier, but his family told him his hands were still too small. He doesn't claim that his blindness had any influence on him becoming a musician, or that his sense of hearing was somehow better developed because of it. During conversation, he maintains steady eye contact with the speaker, so that you might occasionally forget that he is blind.

Music came to him naturally – perhaps because there were several musicians in his family, or because many people in those days had pianos in their homes. He had been hearing little melodies and snippets of song in his mind since as early as 3 or 4. He may have had a wayward year or two when he doubted music was what he wanted, but by the time he was 10, Smith suffered no more reservations, got serious and never let go of it.

"But on the other hand, I had to work at everything else I have in life," Mr. Smith says. His work ethic is what gained him acceptance among peers at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, who, despite sharing similar challenges, did not accept him immediately. Smith claims he battled institutional racism at that school until he left at the age of 18. While many of the students supported this struggle, he believes others harbored racist thoughts themselves. He kept working anyway. He always got excellent grades. When he won just about every award at a school assembly, he could hear all of the students clapping for him together, a moment that thrilled him. It was not just his success that got him their recognition, it was also their realization that everyone at the school was confronting similar problems, whatever their skin color.

"I used to think my hair was the best hair in school – I was very proud of it – and I used to feel the Mexicans and the whites and Indians hair and I think to myself, well this is nice, but look at my hair, they don't have this," he says, laughing at the memory. "And then I learned that you're not only inferior with your hair but in other ways." When he and about 30 other students went to a Phoenix lunch counter in 1953, Smith was refused service. In a silent sign of solidarity for the kid they all called "Smitty," the other students rose up together and walked out.

"It made me feel very good, it was worth it just to get that feeling," he says now of that memory. Residential segregation in Phoenix was not legislated at that time, but blacks and whites were kept separate by an unofficial refusal to sell blacks homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, something that still persists to this day, according to author Kenneth LaFave. 1953 was the same year racial segregation was outlawed in the Phoenix schools – a full year before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Smith claims no direct connection between his experience at that lunch counter that day and what transpired shortly thereafter, but he says, "We proved that segregation is a myth, that it doesn't have to be." Today he says what really weighs on his heart is that there is still so much racism left in this country, and for a moment his voice catches. "I believe fervently that all the races can get along and they can mix and go about their business. After all, that's what the Kingdom is going to be like, so we may as well get used to it now."

Let's go where the grass is greener,
for the grass is greener just beyond the hill.
We'll laugh it up at troubles there,
no one bursting bubbles there.
Day after day there'll be thrills after thrills,

So, let's go where the grass is greener,
where the grass is greener and skies are ever blue.
To the east, to the west, either one is the best,
for the grass is greener everywhere there's you.
--The Grass is Greener, composed by Howlett Smith 
and recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1964

When he came to Los Angeles in 1959 after graduating from the University of Arizona, the city seemed for a time like what he calls Heaven on Earth, where different races were living side by side instead of separated by arbitrary rules. He first moved to 47th street and Western. "When we moved into our neighborhood, it was properly integrated – it had Asians and whites and blacks, and everybody was thrown in together. It was just wonderful – but then white flight began, and they moved out to the Valley" he says, and over the years the city lost its appeal for him – gradually becoming more violent and crowded. But Mr. Smith never left his adopted city, raising a family here, always working on his craft, and eventually becoming a mentor to countless singers. He's been teaching for probably more than fifty years.

Smith was turned onto teaching by his instructors at the School for the Deaf and Blind, and they showed him the sacrifice being a good mentor requires. They worked weekends and after regular hours, and his best teachers did not dictate their ideas – they presented arguments, some devoting an entire class period to showing students both their own viewpoint and opposing ideas. They gave their students the power of making their own choices – but also stringently taught them musical theory, and the dedication making music requires. "As soon as theory class was over, I began to break the rules," Mr. Smith says, "but not before I learned them."

(Lto R) Hillard Street, Sandra Renee Williams and Howlett Smith

His students begin to arrive at the World Stage in a steady trickle by 7p.m.and the room is soon filled with more than 20 people on some nights, but as few as four or five on others. You have to get there early most nights – Smith works with each student for about 10 minutes, and it's on a first come, first served basis. People sign up at the door, greetings abound, hugs between comrades and friends. He sits behind a piano on a tiny narrow stage, a sign asking for a $10 donation set before him. The crowd is well-versed. If you forget the exact words to the song you're singing, someone in the room will not unkindly correct you. Good singing, Mr. Smith says, requires an audience, and here you will get an appreciative and knowledgeable one. Some students repeatedly work on a single line as they navigate a song, others get a few comments from Mr. Smith only after they are finished. Class never goes past 10pm. and always ends the same way – everyone sings "Don't let what you don't know disturb what you do know" – a phrase that Smith first heard in Bible study class, and which he set to to music.

He's been teaching the workshop for about 7 years now. Smith gets discouraged sometimes when the class size dwindles down to a handful, thinking someone is trying to tell him something, but then new students start drifting in again, and before he knows it, the room is full again. He is not sure how people find out about him, but they do, and they are deeply appreciative of him. René Fisher-Mims (aka Mama Ne-Ne) has been helping manage the World Stage for twenty years, always hustling to help keep the doors open for a valuable venue in an underserved community, and says they are blessed to have someone as over-qualified as Smith for such a humble position.

Arienne Battiste and Howlett Smith

Arienne Battiste, a singer who trains with Smith and has collaborated with him on several projects, took her first class at the World Stage when he was ill. She found the teacher's approach that night arbitrary, and decided not to return. But something called her back – call it Spirit if you will – and when she got there everyone was saying, "Oh Mr. Smith, we're so glad your back." She saw a little man with grey hair sitting at the piano–and saw that he could figure out what key a song was in, and immediately begin giving the singers specific instructions. And the singers improved as she watched. Only then realizing Smith was blind, she quickly recognized his talents as a teacher.

"And I went up on stage and I sang, 'There Will Never Be Another You'," that was the first song I sang with him, and he said, "Well, where have you been?" She began working with his Harmony Choir, and became part of Smith's inner circle. She doesn't believe in coincidence, and now sees it as her calling to help him regain his legacy – it is what the universe has asked her to do, she says. She is working with the Howlett Smith Legacy Project to digitize and archive his music.

Most of us, no matter how hard-working or committed to our craft we might be, do not attain the legacy of a Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk – that's more a question of fate, largely out of our hands to control. But before his death in 1995, Larry Gales, who played bass for the Thelonious Monk quintet, told the L.A. Times that Smith was serious, sentimental and funny, but never routine – and put him in the same league as Davis and Monk.

So the question still lingers – why isn't this man better known? A few of his songs are still remembered– like "Little Altar Boy," which was recorded by Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and The Carpenters–but his name is not. He served as musical director for "Me and Bessie," a project with blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins that went to Broadway in 1975 and ran more than a year. He has written several musicals, directed multiple church choirs and written all those songs that clamor for space in his file cabinets. Battiste believes his obscurity may stem from Smith having been burned in the "sighted world" by associates who made promises they did not keep. Maybe it's because, as Smith says, "I'm not a very vociferous person when it comes to blowing my own horn."

He is also a man of deeply felt religious conviction, and as a Seventh-Day Adventist, gave up playing gigs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – primetime for any musician. He did this willingly and without reservation, but he also passed up other opportunities to tour Europe or play any number of nightclubs. During his twenty year residency at the now defunct Bob Burns restaurant, he never played once on the Sabbath. If he suffers from regret, it is from never having found a good manager, describing himself as the worst businessman ever.

Smith is someone with ideas of his own, and he can be very stubborn. He rarely compromises. He almost ended a recording session with a singer who wanted to pronounce the word "stream" as "strum"–a confrontation that nearly came to blows. Another musical project ended after he and another composer disagreed over a lyric. Smith doesn't quote the exact line, but says "I'm not going to have one of my melodies subjected to a lyric like that." He wrote a song called "Visit Me" and legendary Jazz singer Nancy Wilson wanted to record it, but she wanted the phrase "frying pan" taken out of the line "I'll take my frying pan and my electric fan." Smith, who painstakingly crafts his lyrics, refused. "That could've been thousands of dollars for me, but I don't care. It's not about money, it's about the principal. I wanted a frying pan in the song, and you either sing it the way I wrote it, or you find something else. And she chose to find something else," he says, again laughing. "Can you imagine a black woman not saying frying pan? I mean, come on," he adds.

These stories might lead you to conclude that Mr. Smith's relative obscurity comes from being a bit too principled for his own good. Maybe so, but Smith also says he considers everything he has written a work in progress, and says any of his songs could be expanded or rewritten at any time. If a singer comes in late in the process wanting to change his lyrics, Smith might consider it if they could propose a better idea. Changing a word or two of the song to make it easier to sing, whether it's written by him or someone else, is not acceptable.

Howlett Smith

Younger people can still incorporate their own ideas into what he is teaching – but they still have to know the rules, and Mr. Smith teaches them with the same demands for discipline and self-sacrifice that he always made of himself. The most important rule: Phrasing is logical, and the sentence structure of a song determines when the singer should take a breath. Many singers simply do not breathe in the right place, and Smith is relentless is requiring that they learn how to do this properly. There is no singer that can't be criticized, or pushed to try just a little harder.

Mr. Smith will continue teaching for as long as he can. The devotion of his students proves that fame is not the only criteria by which we should take the measure of a lifetime. And if you ask him, it's pretty simple what his legacy will be. "My legacy is music, and it always has been and it always will be," he says, "A man who totally devoted himself to music – a man who wrote it, lived it and performed it."

A Modern Musical Shines Light on a West Coast Landmark

How “La La Land” is saving jazz in Los Angeles

In a recent interview, Damien Chazelle (Director of “La La Land”), said that his initial impression of Los Angeles being a cultural vacuum changed after he moved here from the East Coast.  He found that LA is a fascinating city, rich in history and beautiful.  Thanks to the methodically creative compositions of Justin Hurwitz, the original soundtrack of “La La Land” is a splendid mix of memorable award-winning music. The film “La La Land” is a musical love letter to Los Angeles and is shining a beacon on jazz music.

In “La La Land,” the character Keith (John Legend) critically lectures Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in a scene at a recording studio; “How are you gonna save jazz if no one is listening? … You're playing to 90-year-olds at The Lighthouse. Where are the kids… the young people? ... You're holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Jazz is a true American art form that began in New Orleans during the 1800's and is an evolutionary music genre, from which many of the popular genres we listen to today have developed. Even in “La La Land” John Legend's character Keith combines jazz with modern electronic pop music to appeal to a younger and bigger music buying audience.

Henry Franklin

Henry "The Skipper" Franklin, The Lighthouse, Photo by Mark Sonners © 2015

Once upon a time, Los Angeles was all about West Coast jazz and there were many clubs all over the city and adjacent neighborhoods.  The Sunset Strip had so many jazz clubs back in the early 1950's that you could park your car in one spot and walk to a choice of several clubs to hear live jazz within a four block radius.  Hermosa Beach (20 miles southwest of Downtown LA) has been home to The Lighthouse Café jazz club since 1949 and was featured in “La La Land” as a location and important character of its own as part of the story.  The ninety-year-old that Keith refers to in the scene I noted is Gloria Cadena (91) who is the jazz booker for The Lighthouse Café.  In the past, jazz was played there seven nights a week, but in recent years Gloria books jazz bands only on Wednesday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  To attract more customers to the club on the other nights, local bands and artists that play music from rock to reggae are booked through another manager at The Lighthouse Café.  Gloria's late husband, Ozzie Cadena, was a jazz record producer and promoter in Los Angeles. He promoted The Lighthouse and is credited with helping to popularize jazz in Los Angeles.

Since “La La Land” was released in early December 2016, The Lighthouse Café has become a popular destination for tourists, fans and locals alike.  Just about a month before this phenomenon occurred, Mark Sonners opened his art gallery, Gallery Exposure, in the front portion of his fine art printing company, Print and Show.  His gallery and shop are located in the quaint Old Town Village in Torrance, California about four miles southeast of Hermosa Beach where The Lighthouse Cafe sits.  Mark Sonners has been very successful in the commercial printing business for many years, but after the Northridge earthquake destroyed his shop and the rise of digital image formats and  decline in the traditional printing, he moved from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay region of LA and settled in Hermosa Beach, just a few blocks from The Lighthouse Café and was delighted to have a club where he could enjoy live jazz.  When he lived in the SFV, he used to be a regular at jazz clubs like Charlie O's, Dante's (both closed) and occasionally The Baked Potato which is still there.

Gallery Exposure

Gallery Exposure, Torrance CA, Photo by Nish © 2017

Being an ardent jazz fan and photographer, Mark began taking pictures of the brilliant jazz players who perform at The Lighthouse and got to know Gloria Cadena and saw the legendary Howard Rumsey (bassist) who started playing jazz with his band at The Lighthouse in 1949. Mark's knowledge of jazz from its roots through its evolution into many new music styles is only exceeded by his passion for jazz music itself.   His photography exhibit reflects his love for jazz played at The Lighthouse Café.

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas, The Lighthouse, Photo by Mark Sonners © 2016

The Lighthouse – café was added to the name of the club many years later – was a very important establishment in West Coast jazz with famous players like Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Mose Allison, Stan Getz, The Jazz Crusaders, Cal Tjder, and more. These artists I listed all recorded live albums there.  Mark Sonners has been snapping the current players at The Lighthouse and his show is a reflection of the club today. Also showing at Gallery Exposure are some select prints from photographer Chuck Koton who has dedicated the last fifteen years to documenting jazz musicians with his photography.

Mark Sonners, jazz musicians, fans and I would love to see a resurgence of the popularity of jazz, particularly West Coast jazz.  When Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) declared to Mia (Emma Stone) that jazz was dying he wasn't kidding.  In America, the land of its birth, jazz clubs are closing and becoming other types of venues; jazz radio stations are switching their format to other genres, and even at the

Grammys, the jazz categories of awards are not televised.  Gregory Porter won his second Grammy Award for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year in 2017 for “Take Me To The Alley” and he happens to be a Californian.  His first Grammy Award was in 2014 for “Liquid Spirit.” Yet Gregory Porter was not part of the live performances during the televised Grammy Awards. None of the jazz nominees performed for the “main” show.  Al Jarreau passed away on the day of the Grammy Awards and he was barely mentioned during the live show. Music fans in other countries like Japan, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands seem to revere jazz more than we do and they keep it alive. Young jazz musicians from those countries make their way to the USA thinking that jazz still thrives here, but find themselves among a minority of young people who appreciate and know the rich history of jazz in America.

Mark Sonners

Mark Sonners, Photo Nish © 2017

If “La La Land” has sparked a renewed interest in jazz and a curiosity among Millennials to listen and learn about it then let the spark burst into a flame that will help save jazz in the USA.  So far, the multi-award winning film has shined a beacon on The Lighthouse Café and people are following the beam of light to the club to hear jazz in numbers they haven't seen there in years.  If the crowds continue Gloria might be able to book jazz artists there more than three days a week and attract the big names in jazz to play there again. The Lighthouse can also help guide music fans from all over America to have an interest in West Coast jazz and recognize it for the revolutionary and evolutionary cultural art form that it is.  That is the La La Land dream for this LA native and many other dedicated jazz lovers.