In 1999 I was honored to produce "This Is Our Music, These Are Our People" for the City of Chicago's Millennium Global Gala celebration. Here is the rough script we followed on that amazing evening as the clock counted down to midnight...
House lights dim - giant house curtain remains closed w/ lit podium in front.
K. Elling on mic: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Maggie Daley."
Spotlight on Mayor and Mrs. Daley as they enter SL and proceed to podium 1/3 SL
Mayor Daley: Good evening, and welcome to the Arie Crown Theater, named for a Lithuanian emigrant who was patriarch to one of this city's great business and philanthropic families. I am very proud to welcome all of our international guests to our millennium festivities. Maggie and I look foreword to hosting you all later at the magnificent banquet Commissioner Weisberg has planned for later, and I hope that you're having the time of your lives.
Maggie Daley: Chicago is a city of literature and a city of music. Writers have loved the city's grit and moxie; its rawhide style of urban survival. Many great writers literally came of age in Chicago and immortalized their memories of her in gifts of literature which invited readers from around the world to know and feel a part of our rich cultural tapestry.
Chicago has been a hot bed of diverse musical development its whole life. As wave upon wave of immigrant group arrived and collided with communities already established, some of the old songs and musical traditions they brought with them were bent and reshaped - reharmonized to reflect the new, more collective environment - or were regulated and refined in reaction to it. Some younger musical traditions, coming up from alloy cultures in southern states, did not develop fully until they came to know play a role in the life of this city.
The people who make this city great are tough customers, even when beat. Our kind of hustling, forward-looking energy have focused the arts - have sharpened their blades. Chicago is a Jazz town, a Gospel town, and the Home of the Blues. In celebration of the new millennium, and in gratitude to all of our friends from around the world who have come home to Chicago to celebrate, Mayor Daley and I, along with Commissioner Lois Weisberg and the Department of Cultural Affairs present a Kurt Elling production: "This Is Our Music, These Are Our People".
Spotlight follows Mayor and Mrs. Daley as they exit SL. House curtain opens as they exit. Workers strike podium in same direction in the dark.
Every segment opens with projected superscriptions of white words on a black background a la' Ken Burns showing the title of the reading, the author's name, his or her birth and death dates and place of birth (if Chicago). This means a separate projector and a single projection target for all superscriptions.
Video montage 1:The video will be made up of splinter/cut-up archival images of recognizable and left-handed Chicago images. Images pass by in a dreamlike sequence. (Ernie Banks posing for photos, Richard J. Daley lighting the city's Christmas tree in 1967, kids playing in a fire hydrant, people looking in the windows on old State Street, early films of traffic from the thirties, 4th of July, 1973, Harold Washington's funeral procession, et al.) It ends with a shot of the city skyline looking in from the lake at a late afternoon sunset sky, lights in buildings coming on. It is this image which will be re-imagined and brought to color by the stylized buildings of our set at the end of the show.
Sound design uses urban sounds (taxi horns, laughter, crowds cheering and "Jordan for three!!", a thick Chicago accent, Irish Day marchers) mixed with audio snippets of international languages speaking of pedestrian concerns (giving directions, asking for Cubs tickets, "here's your change") and music as background to Ken Nordine's voice over. (The music for this segment includes references to a musical theme which will be repeated and developed throughout the performance and will come to its full flower in the segment featuring the Soul Children.)
Suppose Gauguin had never seen Tahiti. Suppose the beche-de-mer and
sandalwood trades had not materialized
and the Polynesian gods held fast in the fruits of Nuku Hiva and the milk- and-honey waters of Eiao.
Suppose that Europe during whichever century of its rise toward science
had not lost faith in the soul.
Suppose the need for conquest had turned inward, as a hunger after
clarity, a siege of the hidden fortress.
Suppose Gauguin had come instead to America. Suppose he left New
York and traveled west by train
to the silver fields around Carson City where the water-shaped, salt-and
appeased the painter's sensibility and the ghost-veined filaments called
his banker's soul to roost.
Suppose he died there, in the collapse of his hand-tunneled mine shaft,
buried beneath the rubble of desire.
Suppose we take Van Gogh as our model. Suppose we imagine him alone
In the Dakotas,
subsisting on bulbs and tubers, sketching wildflowers and the sod huts of
immigrants as he wanders,
an itinerant prairie mystic, like Johnny Appleseed. Suppose what
consumes him is nothing so obvious as crows
or starlight, steeples, cypresses, pigment, absinthe, epilepsy, reapers or
sowers or gleaners,
but is, like color, as absolute and bodiless as the far horizon, the journey
toward purity of vision.
Suppose the pattern of wind in the grass could signify a deeper
restlessness or the cries of land-locked gulls bespoke the democratic
nature of our solitude.
Suppose the troubled clouds themselves were harbingers. Suppose the
veil could be lifted.
"Wheatfield Under Clouded Sky"
Campbell McGrath, b. Chicago, 1962
Dramatic lighting full up on house band at SR - cued with musical entrance. The band will play an opening like a Stan Kenton flourish & go into a deep modern groove following. Von Freeman blows. Musical break, then Kurt Elling recites from Saul Bellow as the music vamps and a superscription like the one at the top of the video montage appears identifying the author and work. The first set is already in place at SC and behind the band. KE announces, "Von Freeman".
Music Feature: Von Freeman, Kurt Elling, Orbert Davis
Set: "John Hancock" by Ed Paschke
The hands of men took hold and tugged
and the breaths of men went into the junk
And the junk stood up into skyscrapers and asked:
Who am I? Am I a city? And if I am what is my name?
And once while the time whistles blew and blew again
the men answered: Long ago we gave you a name,
Long ago we laughed and said: You? Your name is Chicago.
Early the red men gave a name to a river,
the place of the skunk,
the river of the wild onion smell,
Out of the payday songs of steam shovels,
Out of the wages of structural iron rivets,
The living lighted skyscrapers tell it now as a name,
Tell it across miles of sea blue water, gray blue land:
I am Chicago, I am a name given out by the breaths of work-
ing men, laughing men, a child, a belonging.
So between the Great Lakes,
The Grand De Tour, and the Grand Prarie,
The living lighted skyscrapers stand,
Spotting the blue dusk with checkers of yellow,
streamers of smoke and silver,
Parallelograms of night gray watchmen,
Singing a soft moaning song: I am a child, a belonging.
from "The Windy City"
by Carl Sandburg, 1922
Segue to more uptempo thrashing Orbert Davis feature. Melody again refers to the developing musical theme. Possible secondary reading. Possible lights up on secondary art building.Red, red lights with black for this segment. Spotlight the gold of the brass instruments, esp. Orbert Davis' as he screams the high notes. The music cooks. KE announces, "Orbert Davis!"
Music Feature: Orbert Davis, Kurt Elling
I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I
have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first
admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent. But a man's character
is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the
knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy in suppression; if you hold down
one thing you hold down the adjoining . . .
(1:30) - cue live music
But there is some kind of advantage in the roughness of a place like Chicago, of
not having any illusions either. Whereas in all the great capitals of the world there's some
reason to think humanity is very different. All that ancient culture and those beautiful works
of art right out in public, by Michelangelo and Christopher Wren . . . You see these
marvelous things and you think everything savage belongs to the past. So you think. And
then you have another think, and you see that after they rescued women from the coal
mines, or pulled down the Bastille and got rid of star chambers and lettres de cachet, ran
out the Jesuits, increased education and built hospitals and spread courtesy and politeness,
they have five or six years of war & revolutions and kill off twenty million people. And do
they think there's less danger to life than here? That's a riot. Let them say rather that they
blast better specimens, but not put it over that the only human beings who live by blood
are away down in Orinoco where they hunt heads, or out in Cicero with Al Capone.
"The Adventures of Augie March"
Saul Bellow, 1953
(Applause / soloists bow / fade to black / set change)
Superscription shows author information which cues KE: "Mr. Richard Steele", then Richard Steele rises from his seat on the SR aisle holding a small pile of old looking mail as a tight, warm-colored spotlight hits. Stage remains black as octet departs and Dancers take the stage, carrying mail bags to their places. Landmark featured in the set is the old post office or perhaps the merchandise mart - at first only in silhouette ("that great gray building.").
Set: Merchandise Mart by John Frasier
. . .one summer I worked nights in the Post Office, that great gray building wherein are many stories. I sweated with the others , tossed mail hour on hour, my body swaying, my arms moving, my mind going dead, my eyes reading the addresses. We were supposed to sort fifty letters a minute. Figure that out, folks. I must have tossed a few billion letters while I was there, and where those letters went I did not care. . . The belts rumbled on, carrying the mail away, and merchandise rattled down the chutes. Some music, folks, a symphony in the blues: the Negroes humming as they tossed the mail, sweat rolling down their faces, and the dust whirling under the lights. Can a man dance standing still? He can. He can if he's a Negro, if he's throwing mail down at the Post Office. He stands at the case, hums and sways, and pretty soon it's dancing.
Oh, dance, dark boys, go on dancing. Dance on the night shift for dear old Chicago.
Cue lights slow fade up on dancers
At eleven o'clock, we ate . . .There we sat on the cool stone stairs, whites, Negroes, Filipinos, all in the same boat, our hands moist, our shirts sticking to our backs, all waiting for the bell to ring. And it rang. It rang on time, too. We dribbled through the small doorway, showed our badges to the watchman, checked in again at the desk, got another tray of mail, and our arms began tossing letters again. We worked up a swaying movement. Our legs, restless at first, grew steady, and our arms seemed to flow on forever. And under the lights, those strong glaring bulbs, the dust from the dirty mail sacks whirled in the air.
"Young Writer Remembering Chicago'" from On The Shorebr> Albert Halper, b. Chicago 1904, d. 1984
Spotlight fades on Richard Steele and he sits back down. Lights full up on Jeoffrey Dancers (royal green atmosphere with overhead basement lighting implied). Lights at 1/3 for musicians.
Post Office Midnight. (choreographer: Randy Duncan)
(Applause / bows / fade to black / set change)
Superinscription shows author information and cues KE: "Mr. Roy Leonard". This cues Joe Vito playing accordion as he walks slowly from up SR to down SL & off stage. Spotlight up as Roy Leonard rises from his seat on the SL aisle holding what looks like an old copy of The Daily News.
Set: the Tribune Tower by John Pittman
The Accordion is said to be slipping out of sight as a popular instrument.
Since 1950, when 130,000 were sold, it has dropped to a recent one-year sale of
Guitars, meanwhile, are being sold by the millions.
There was a time when, in my neighborhood alone, there must have been 35,000
accordions. The only guitar player was a hillbilly who always strummed sad songs because
hard times had forced him to leave his native Wilson Avenue and live with people who
There were a lot of reasons why the accordion was popular among the working
and drinking classes.
It made a lot of noise for one instrument. There was no future as a tavern or
wedding virtuoso if you took up the flute or harp. You needed a big instrument that would
drown out the sound of stomping feet, breaking glasses, and falling bodies.
Also, the accordion looked something like the only other musical instrument people
in the neighborhood were familiar with - the juke box. It gleamed and had as many colors
as new kitchen linoleum.
Nobody saw sense in spending money on something like a violin, which was small,
made of wood, and would break if you hit someone with it.
If a youth had talent, and was too dumb to conceal it, he would probably get an
accordion with his initials on the front. Then he was trapped, because it was hard to resell
As soon as his repertoire included one polka and a Hit Parade fox-trot he was
dragged into the parlour and forced to perform for his aunts, uncles, and snickering
Next it would be a picnic and a chance to show you could play with mosquitoes in
your ears and somebody spilling beer on the keys.
Then on stage at the neighborhood movie house's Saturday Talent Show. It was a
thrill to stand there with all your friends in the front rows yelling that you stink.
For the Very best, the big-time was going on Morris B. Sachs' Radio Amateur Hour
and playing "Lady of Spain I Adore You."
(I guess) it is to be expected that the accordion has given way to the guitar.
The guitar is a light instrument, easily carried by a teenage girl, or even a teenage
boy. Any you get a tremendous noise out of it, especially when it is combined with a youth
who sings at the top of his adenoids about how his heart is broken because he and his love
want to get married but nobody will buy them a car.
And that, in simple sociological terms, is why we have millions of little John
Lennons making our music
There is no reason to regret this, though. If the accordion had remained popular,
the country would be overrun today by a horde of teenage Lawrence Welks. And half the
parents would be in hock paying for bubble machines.
"The Accordion vs. The Guitar"
from The Daily News, July 31, 1968
Mike Royko, b. Chicago, 1932, d. 1997
(Applause / fade to black / drop projection scrim / set change)
Video Montage 2: Superscription. This Montage is in black and white, primarily, and is made up of Studs Terkel walking through location oriented shots - the city streets at dusk and night and in the winter - mostly empty - Studs as one lone nightowl pedestrian bushing his overcoat collar up against the November lake wind, walking under the El tracks somewhere, papers blowing, smoke from the street, giving the sense that city is lonely for some ordinary lost citizen who just happened to have been the life of the party. Shots of empty railroad track leading to downtown. The city through end-of-summer wildflowers at twilight. Art shots of quiet Edward Hopper style anonymous types through apartment windows. It ends with the second, more artful shot of some section of skyline, echoing and interpreting the shot which ended Video Montage 1,
The image of Studs under the El tracks provides the segue idea for the transition from the montage to the performance aspect of this segment. The image is enacted by a live someone going across the stage wearing the same coat and hast as Studs and whatever lighting trick it takes to put him under the El as trains go by. This someone will cross paths with Buddy Guy as B.G. takes the stage. They will nod heads in passing (possible to get B.G. to wear a hip looking hat?) as a train goes by overhead.
Laurence Hobgood plays a melancholy solo piano arrangement of "My Kind Town" (which includes references to the developing musical theme) for Studs Terkel's voiceover.
(Superscription appears and cues Laurence Hobgood)
Set: a single stylized El buttress and track in an angled "T" shape
The Pig wallows are paved, great Diesels stroke noiselessly past the clamorous tenements of home. The Constellations move, silently and all unseen, through blowing seas above the roofs. Only the measured clatter of empty cars, where pass the northbound and Southbound Els , comes curving down the constant boundaries of night. . .
And never once, on any midnight whatsoever, will you take off from here without a pang. Without forever feeling something priceless is being left behind in the forest of furnished rooms, lost forever down below, beneath the miles and miles of lights. With the slow smoke blowing compassionately across them like smoke across the spectrum of the heart. As smoky rainbows dreaming, and fading as they dream, across those big fancy Southside jukes forever inviting you to put another nickel in, put another nickel in whether the music's playing or not.
As the afternoon's earliest juke-box beats out rumors of the Bronzeville night.
A rumor of neon flowers, bleeding all night long, along those tracks where endless locals pass.
Leaving us empty-handed every hour on the hour.
Remembering nights, when the moon was a buffalo moon, that the narrow plains between the billboards were touched by an Indian wind. Littered with tin cans and dark with smoldering rubble, an Indian wind yet finds, between the shadowed canyons of The Loop, patches of prairie to touch and pass.
Between the curved street of the El and the nearest Clark street hockshop, between the penny arcade and the shooting gallery, between the basement gin mill and the biggest juke in Bronzeville, the prarie is caught for keeps at last. Yet on nights when the blood-red neon of the tavern legends tether the arc lamps to all the puddles left from last night's rain, somewhere between the carnival of the boulevards and the dark girders of the El, ever so far and ever so faintly between the still grasses and the moving waters, clear as a cat's cry on a midnight wind, the Pottawatomies mourn in the river reeds once more.
The Pottowatamies were much too square. They left nothing behind but their dirty river.
While we shall leave, for rememberance, one rusty iron heat.
The city's rusty heart, that holds both the hustler and the square.
Takes them both and holds them there.
For keeps and a single day.
from "Chicago: City on the Make"
Nelson Algren, 1951
Lights up as the coated someone from the video passes beneath the projected city on a scrim passing from down SL to upSR. The set of EL tracks is set at this angle as well, or appears to be. There is a guitar amp ready for Buddy Guy at the base of the El buttress. Someone and B.G. pass each other going in opposite directions. They nod. KE: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Buddy Guy." B.G. carries his guitar and simply plugs in when he reaches the amp at down SL. He then does whatever he wants to do for 10-13 minutes.
Music feature: Buddy Guy
set: Tony Fitzpatrick
(Applause / fade to black / set change)
Ana Castillo feature:
Superscription shows author information, KE: "Senora Donna Ana Castillo". Ana Castillo appears within the same lighting spot as Mayor Daley did down SL, only without podium and with a high stool. She recites for 2-3 minutes, as Dave Onderdonk plays guitar softly in the background.
Guitar continues in ½ light
Mike Maldonado feature
Superscription show's author information.
KE: "Mr Mike Maldonado." Mike Maldonado rises from his seat in the crowd on the center aisle and a spotlight catches him.
I come from Puerto Rico to the United States when I was 17 - to Chicago in 1958. I started singing in my Uncle's band, "La Grand Sonora". This is me. People come up to me and they say, "You know, you played my father''s wedding!" I've been doing this for forty years. All in the City of Chicago.
I love this city. The minute I got here I fell in love. I was in Pennsylvania for three years, and in three years I saw three Latinos - and we were all relatives!! I came here for Christmas, I'm at my aunt's house and they have all kinds of Puerto Rican food - I come here and It's all over me, rice and beans, everywhere I went I see Latinos here already and I say to myself, "This is IT!"
I found a job and kind of move up and better jobs. But I love Chicago. You know, I have dreams that I'm somewhere else - you know, trapped - and I cannot come here, and it's like a nightmare. And then I wake up and I say, "I'm here!"
One time I even played for Mayor Daley, the father. We were invited to take a Paranda - in Puerto Rico we do this from house to house at Christmas time - take a bunch of musicians, and we don't even knock on the door. We just go to the front steps, one, two o'clock in the morning, and we start playing and smiling and everybody in the house gets up and invites us in and we just keep on drinking and playing . . . The Party is here. It's a Paranda! Three or four places every night!
So we get an invitation to play by Mayor Daley - and remember, we played the night before 'til late and we're not feeling to good, you know? - cold, windy, but we went. We had a police escort all the way - no red lights, you see? My uncle and me and four others in the band and we go. It's maybe 1968 or 9.
I don't remember seeing the kids there, you know? "You gonna be good Irish kids. Get outta here" - you know? - "There's some Puerto Ricans coming to the house!!"
So his wife and himself come out - I remember he had a big bear coat. They came outside and stood with us a while. Then they invited us in to his basement. We had black coffee and cookies. So we played some more and laughed and behaved ourselves.
I also remember we used to play 4 sets at this night club called the "Latin Village" up by Lincoln and Fullerton with my own band, "La Confidencia". Four sets, from 10-4 O'clock in the morning on Saturdays. And I was there for three nights, sometimes four nights a week later on. It was hard work sometimes - especially Sundays when you have to get up the following day to get to work. I've been in management for 45 years for different companies. I never wanted to go to, say, New York or Puerto Rico and say, "Let me try out for you," you know? "And make recordings or something like this and become famous."
Maybe it was the unlucky or the lucky way to have a good job most of the time. Anyway, I like to be the singer. It's nice to be able to say, "Well, I'm going out!" Dress up. My other life . . .
Set: Tops of Marina Towers by: Tony Fitzpatrick
(Lights down on M.M. and up abruptly on dancers and conga player, already in place.
Conga player on a raised platform with spotlight (behind drums) - dancers will enact a faux dance competition with a big splashy ending.)
Latin Soul Dance Co. Feature: Rhumba Competition
set by Sarah Krepp
(Applause / bows / fade to black / set change)
Ken Nordine feature:All in dark. Superscription shows author information. Then very slow fade up of projected image of sculpture by Richard Hunt. Voiceover by Ken Nordine begins in the dark & plays, roughly 2:10. Extreme slow fade out of projected image.
Tick Tock Heart
by Ken Nordine, 1999
Blues Band immediately into vamp for whatever tune Zora Young will be performing first. Cue Zora Young Cadillac convertible, with Zora Young up on the back with feather boa and a chauffeur-looking person in the driver's seat, driving the car from Up SR to down SL to join the band. KE: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Princess of the Blues, Ms. Zora Young!" Once the car hits its mark it stops, Kurt Elling helps Zora Young out of the car and departs, SL. Chauffeur drives off again, and Zora Young joins her band for her 10-15 minutes.
Music Feature: Zora Young
(Applause / bows/ fade to black / set change )
Some sonic information, courtesy Dave Onderdonk & Laurence Hobgood as transition music - ½-1 minute.
KE: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks."
Gwendolyn Brooks goes to podium and down stage left. She will read for 5 minutes and will be unaccompanied and unfilmed.
Video montage 3: Superscription. The third and final video segment opens with super eight-looking stock footage of art unveilings (specifically of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza), people interacting with art and all around town - orchestra hall shots and art institute. Kids sliding down the Picasso ramp, people digging Buckingham Fountain, concert audiences at recognizable venues cheering wildly, musicians and dancers sweating, working, the intensity of it, street musicians [if any are left]. Ends in a third architectural "sweep" and stylized skyline shot echoing Video Montage 1.
Dave Onderdonk provides a live sonic backdrop to this Montage and ionizes the atmosphere for the duration of the Montage.
Set: Hollis Sigler
Kurt Elling voiceover:
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
art hungers. Art urges voyages -
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
we belch, or sniff, or scratch.
But we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who
is a requiring courtesan.
We do not hug the Mona Lisa.
may touch or tolerate
an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.
At most another Lion.
Observe the tall cold of a Flower
which is as innocent and as guilty,
as meaningful and as meaningless as any
other flower in the western field.
"The Chicago Picasso"
Gwendolyn Brooks, August 15, 1967
The end of the montage cues Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood who play the musical setting of the last four lines of the poem set to music rubato. Spotlight on grand piano in Jazz Ensemble as Laurence Hobgood solo piano cues jazz trio. This sets up the final development of the theme. Elling and trio repeat the theme as often as necessary, with Hobgood blowing throughout. This cues the entrance of the True Voices from the rear of the hall. They sing and clap hands with the trio's playing as they walk up the two side aisles and to their risers at CS and repeat The Theme as necessary to a big finish.
KE: "Ladies and Gentelmen, The Reginald McCracken True Voices of Christ Concert Ensemble!"
Music Feature: The True Voices
Set: multiple buildings by Hollis Sigler
(Applause / no lighting fade / True Voices remain in place for the finale)
Kurt Elling walks from SR to CS, mic in hand, shakes Reginald McCracken's hand, and says:
Kurt Elling: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for allowing us to share some time with you all on this tremendous New Year's Eve. We'd also like to thank Mayor and Mrs. Daley for asking us all to perform for you, as well as Commissioner Lois Weisberg and the excellent staff at the Department of Cultural Affairs, etc . . .Happy New Year, everybody!!
Set: nearly complete skyline becomes more complete with the addition of each finale participant.
Elling then cues full Jazz ensemble to play the introduction to "My Kind Of Town" Elling performs the 'verse' and counts off the first time through the song in swing time as we are all familiar with it. Modulation into second verse for Von Freeman's solo. At the end of one of the forms, the band shifts to a funk/'remixed'-sounding rhythm feel and Zora Young comes out and leads a howling chorus, involving the True Voices. Buddy Guy joins in and jams a chorus or two of whatever chord progression we're using at this point (probably blues turnarounds) and the True Voices begin really cooking. Some sort of big finish involving all major musical participants, with the rhythm feel hovering somewhere intelligent between the funkus and the swing. "Fireworks" at the end.
(Applause / "fireworks" continue / bows)
Encore: "Sweet Home Chicago", led by Buddy Guy and Zora Young