It starts with the sounds of jazz great Charles Mingus and ends with … we’ll tell you later. In between, Frank Boyd’s one-man play “The Holler Sessions,” now in the Guthrie’s ninth-floor Dowling Studio, is 80 minutes of music, rants, comedy and profanity, fast-paced and very entertaining. Somewhere in Kansas City, in what looks like a basement studio – dank, cluttered, in need of a deep cleaning – a deejay named Ray is living his reclusive, quirky life, preaching the gospel of jazz.
The Guthrie’s Joseph Haj first saw “The Holler Sessions” in the Netherlands in the summer of 2015. “I was instantly taken by the show’s humor and unfiltered appeal to those of us uninitiated in the sublime ways of jazz,” he wrote in his program notes. If Haj wasn’t a jazz fan, you don’t have to be, either. It’s probably better if you’re not. Then you’ll get the surprise of the show and the surprise of the music, a playlist that also includes Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
Ray the deejay came to jazz late – in his 30s. He’s now so obsessed with it that he spends his days and nights in a windowless room, playing music, telling stories, taking calls from listeners, pumping his arms in the air, swigging Jack Daniels and eating peanuts.
We spoke with Boyd by phone on Tuesday morning.
MinnPost: “The Holler Sessions” feels personal. How personal is it?
Frank Boyd: It’s very personal. I play a character, so I’m up there pretending to be somebody else, but a lot of that character’s passions and the things that he’s outraged about and the things that he’s moved by – there’s a lot of overlap there to me personally.
MP: You found jazz in your 30s. What was your gateway?
FB: I had an onslaught of gateway moments over a short period of time. I was in Kansas City working on another show, but during that time is when this character was created, and some early material. I was in a club listening to music and heard a kid named Ernest Melton, who at the time was 16 years old. His mom brought him down to the club, it was a Monday night, and Ernest got up and did his thing. He’s an incredible tenor saxophone player, and it was a thrilling moment of live performance. He just wailed.
Listening to Charles Mingus’ album “Mingus Ah Um,” and [the song] “Better Git It in Your Soul,” which is featured in the show – that was a blow-your-head-off moment for sure. There’s a lot going on in that recording, some aggressive, even angry elements. That’s not how I thought of jazz before.
Another Kansas City moment was on a Tuesday night at a sports bar. A 16-piece big band was rehearsing and there’s a whole row of dudes with their backs to the band watching the TVs at the bar. Because the band was rehearsing, we got in for free, and the Jamesons were $2. Hearing a big band live … where do you get to do that now, for free, in an informal, down-home kind of setting? That was totally exhilarating.
MP: Have you had a chance to hear any live jazz in the Twin Cities?
FB: Well, no, because I have a friggin’ show every night. I went to the Dakota and heard Irv Williams play a happy hour set. I just kind of hung out there for an hour. He turned 98 on Sunday.
MP: People often describe jazz as sit-back-and-relax music. How do you see it?
FB: I think that’s total bull, and one of the essential missions of this show is to shatter that myth. That was another thing about being in Kansas City, when I really got bit by the bug. Historically, the Kansas City sound is a hard-swinging, bluesy thing. That’s how I think of it now. I’m not going to listen to Kenny G. Charles Mingus has more in common with punk rock than he does with Kenny G.
MP: When you were creating the character of Ray, who were your inspirations?
FB: George Carlin was certainly an inspiration. East Coast kind of smartass characters like Dave Letterman, and a sports radio guy, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo. Kind of combative, but also very earnest and emotional people. And salty.
MP: At one point in the show, your character gets a nosebleed. Are we supposed to think Ray is a cokehead?
FB: I get so many questions about that. It cracks me up. This is not the kind of show with stage blood, so people are like – wait, is this real? It feels so weird and out of place. The idea is that for an outsider, for a nonmusician, he’s so in love, and he’s advocating so hard, and he’s getting close to the flame. He’s talking about all these musicians who died young, and trying to put together why the hell that happened. So maybe the idea is that it’s affecting him physically. The literal interpretation is that he’s a speed freak or a cokehead, but I don’t know, and I don’t really care. It’s a little jolt, theatrically, that I’ve always liked, without ever having an important dramaturgical reason why it happens.
People always ask about the backstory of the character. It’s been a criticism of the show, that we don’t really learn anything about this guy, which I totally disagree with. A lot of people have said they want to know more about him. His name isn’t even in the show. I don’t know where the name Ray got out. It’s just something that got into marketing material at some point. I never say the name. I didn’t want it to be about him; that felt kind of dirty to me. You learn about the character through his relationship to the music and the other things he encounters, like USA Today or the American Airlines magazine. There’s no exposition whatsoever about him. That is a good challenge to me as a performer.
MP: Jazz is improvisation. How much of your performance is improvised?
FB: Less than people would think. I think the show feels extremely live and improvisational even when it’s actually not. I take some phone calls, and those are all improvised. Reading the newspaper is always improvised, and it’s always the actual newspaper. But beyond that, everything else is set. I have a script. It’s all written down. It has been crafted very specifically for a long time. But each night that I tell the stories or get into a segment, it’s like telling a really long joke that you’ve told many times. It’s very specific, but the little twists and turns you make in telling it are loose and it’s not memorized in that way. I bet 85 to 90 percent of the show is totally the same every night.
[Note: When we spoke, Boyd had given 72 public performances of “The Holler Sessions.”]
MP: What else do you want people to know coming in?
FB: That the show is funny and totally irreverent and pretty unhinged. Ken Burns [who made a 10-part series about jazz for PBS] is one of my favorite filmmakers, but it’s not Ken Burnsian. It’s very profane. Just to upend the expectation of this self-serious jazz thing.
Frank Boyd’s “The Holler Sessions” continues through Sunday, Aug. 20, with shows tonight through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. FMI and tickets ($9, general admission).
Spoiler alert!!! “The Holler Sessions” has a surprise ending. With five performances remaining, Boyd gave the go-ahead to spill the news. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what it is.
Even if you know it’s coming, it’s still magical. At the end of the play, the theater goes dark for a few moments, and you hear something happening on stage. When the lights come up again, five musicians, an upright bass and a drum set are crowded into the small space. Then bassist Gary Raynor, who’s also the music director for this production, leads a quintet of Twin Cities musicians through a 25-minute set of standards by Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Charlie Parker, Oliver Nelson and a jazzy “Bye Bye Blackbird.” (That’s what we heard Friday night. It’s jazz, so that could change.) You can stay or you can leave, but hey, it’s a free concert. The other four musicians are trumpeter Solomon Parham, saxophonist Lucia Sarmiento, trombonist Dave Graf and drummer Sheila Earley. “The band is a jackpot,” Boyd said. “They are so good, and they’re nice people to be around.”
MP: Has the surprise ending always been part of the show?
FB: Always. From the first workshop, I’ve never done it without musicians. That used to be a seriously guarded secret, and I love the moment of surprise for the audience, but sometimes I’m like – is it actually worth it not to tell everyone who’s involved? Especially when you have artists of this caliber.
This interview has been edited and condensed.