Kurt Elling presents “The Big Blind: A Jazz Radio Drama”

It is now post time. The Big Blind is a highly ambitious project by the veteran, Grammy-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling and co-writer, Grammy-nom Phil Galdston. It’s a very unusual form, not staged like a conventional play or musical comedy, but in the form of an audio drama, as in the Golden Age of radio in the 1930s & ’40s: Live actors & singers on stage, plus a full orchestra, plus a narrator and a sound effects man. Directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney, the work combines new songs by Elling and Galdston, plus some appropriate vintage songs by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Joe Zawinul, and others. In addition to Mr. Elling, the cast includes the storied singer-actress Dee Dee Bridgewater, Broadway colossus Ben Vereen, actors Allison Semmes, and the talented British singer Ian Shaw accompanied Ulysses Owens Jr.’s New Century Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Guy Barker.
The Big Blind will premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center this weekend (with a 24-piece orchestra), and then in London (where it will be recorded and broadcast in an expanded orchestral setting for BBC radio) and then tour the USA in various forms.

But what makes The Big Blind so interesting is its subject matter: a legendary but at the same time almost completely forgotten cultural figure – Joe E. Lewis. Lewis would have described himself as an entertainer, but from the 21st century perspective, he was a pioneering early stand-up comedian, one of the very first to just literally stand up in front of an audience, without costume or make-up, telling jokes, from one-liners to involved routines, sharing stories, and singing funny songs.

He was a preeminent figure in American showbiz for almost 40 years, from the prohibition era to the 1960s. If he’s not as well-remembered today as he should be, it’s because he worked almost exclusively in nightclubs – he only had a supporting part in one movie (Private Buckaroo), did one Broadway show (The Lady Comes Across), later made one comedy album (It is Now Post Time, for Frank Sinatra’s label), and made only a few television appearances (including one surviving segment on The Ed Sullivan Show). His medium was live performance.

But he exerted a major influence on popular culture – especially on Frank Sinatra, and he became the patron saint of the Ratpack, who based nearly all of their humor and routines on him, and quoted him directly many times in each of their performances.

Lewis was already in the twilight of his career when a book was written about him, a biography titled The Joker is Wild, that became one of the big bestselling biographies of the 1950s – so popular that it was made into a movie – and Sinatra, who was already a huge fan of Lewis, had to play Lewis in the film. It became one of the great acting jobs of Sinatra’s career, and led to an Oscar-winning song, “All the Way.”

The central drama of Lewis’s story, as portrayed is that he started as a promising singer, but ran afoul of a major mob boss in Chicago in the 1920s. When he refused to cave in, he was attacked by hit men, who tried to kill him by cutting his throat. Miraculously he lived, but he lost his singing voice – and gradually got both his life and his career back, as a funny man rather than a crooner. Elling and Galdston are setting their new drama in the 1950s, and they have what they describe as “a dramatic new idea for the turn of the knife.” The central existential question remains, however, “what happens to the artist when the specific avenue of expression is obliterated?”

It’s an amazing story that had relevance for Sinatra – Lewis was a secular Jew from New York, but it’s not hard to see the Catholic significance, in that Lewis was literally coming back from the dead. Sinatra saw it in a reflection of his own career, in that in the early 1950s, he too was washed up and metaphorically left for dead – he saw in Lewis a symbol of resurrection, which is another reason why he was so fascinated with him. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Mr. Elling and his crew are going to do with this material. The story of Joe E. Lewis is a contemporary fable for our time and for all time.