Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Speed of a Lush Life

This I learned on my walk today: everywhere has a center.

In Virginia, the center is under the Harry Byrd memorial, a monument I noticed for the first time today strolling through Capital Square toward the Arts Commission.

It's apparently ground zero and the point from which all distances in the commonwealth are measured. Now who the hell knew that?

After adding to my mile marker knowledge and making a deadline this afternoon, it was time for some NASCAR.

VCU's Southern Film Fest kind of lost me this year with a sports theme, but the double allure of Richard Pryor and Pam Grier was enough to get me to the Grace Street theater to see 1977's "Greased Lightening."

I asked the woman next to me why she was there and she said her husband was chairman of the history department, the ones presenting the film fest, so she thought my reason for coming far superior.

The true story of Wendell Scott, a Virginian and the first black stock car racing champion, was being introduced by Scott's son and grandson who told us the film had premiered in Danville, Wendell's hometown.

He also advised us to take note of the way racial issues were portrayed, unnecessary because it would have been hard to miss ("Don't let him knock you up, young lady. You know how you people are").

Although this was not a comedy role for Pryor, he's so innately funny that a hapless look on his face and a side step became hilarious.

Wendell developed his speedy driving habits while running moonshine on the back roads of Franklin county, which he knew like the back of his hand. When he finally gets caught and jailed, a racetrack owner works a deal to get him out if he'll come race at his track.

He knows Wendell will draw blacks to the track (in the "colored only" section, of course), meaning more business for him, and that the white drivers will try to annihilate him, making for an exciting race. A sign outside the track that day read, "See the one and only negro race car driver."

Beau Bridges' character, a former driver who quits and befriends Wendell to become one of his mechanics, about stole the movie in a scene where he defends the two steak dinners he and Wendell are trying to eat in a whites-only restaurant by holding the rowdy customers at bay with a nearby Confederate flag.

Wendell's life made a great story, overcoming odds to become a champion, a near-fatal crash, a comeback and victory and all set in southern racetracks with the stands filled with people in mostly '70s clothes, a glaring mistake since no one, and I repeat, no one was wearing mini-dresses in 1947.

But at least I now know what the checkered flag means.

I left the '70s and images of Pam Grier's bodacious body for Joe's Inn and a travelogue about Nicaragua over drinks, BLTs and mozzarella sticks.

The returning traveler had scads of photographs of rain forests, low-hanging clouds, living rooves, strangler trees and adorable big-eyed children in colorful clothes.

Joe's was an early evening mob scene with strollers, tables of guys talking about "the" game and a line waiting for a table.

I wasn't sorry to get out of there.

By the time I got to CenterStage, the symphony was already warming up.

Tonight's program, "An Evening of Jazz with Rex Richardson" had its seeds in a show I'd gone to at the Singleton Center back in 2006.

Richardson had been playing in a group called Rhythm and Brass and that night's program had ranged from the Beatles to Radiohead with bits of everything in between.

That was the night I'd fallen for Rex's trumpet playing. I might have even gone up to him afterwards and gushed a bit.

Fast forward and now he's fronting an evening with the Richmond Symphony and you can be certain I'd gotten my $10, next-to-the-last-row ticket two weeks ago.

Waiting for the music to begin, I listened to the discussion behind me of the altitude of the seats, the fact that people were sneaking drinks in ("This is my first time, so I followed the rules. I did throw back a martini across the street first, but next time I'll know better," one woman said), and what was on the program, with one woman singing a snippet of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). Badly.

I saw a higher than usual percentage of faces from VCU in addition to the usual mothball-scented crowd like the gent next to me who exuded eau de camphor every time he applauded.

With guest drummer Nate Smith and symphony pianist Russel Wilson front and center, they launched into the first piece called "Ellington Portrait," swinging the room through everything from "Sophisticated Lady" to "Prelude to a Kiss."

Then Rex came out to take us through "Rextreme," a piece composed especially for him by James Stephenson to highlight Rex's ability to jump around between wildly separate notes and blow incredibly long note sequences.

Watching and listening to him, it was hard to conceive of how he could hold enough air to make possible the sounds he was producing.

When the three-movement piece ended, the guy behind me wailed, "Yea!" not what you tend to hear at the symphony.

As intermission began, the center front of the stage began to slowly drop below main stage level, taking away the drums and piano for the start of the second half.

That began with Gershwin's overture to "Of Thee I Sing," which the conductor told us was the only musical to win the Pulitzer prize. What the what?

The things I was learning today!

Then the stage rose back up and Rex (his suit history and now wearing an untucked blue shirt), his three horns and friends - musicians playing drums, sax, upright bass and piano- played through more Gershwin and Ellington, including a very different version of "Caravan" than the one the symphony had done in the first half.

For me, one of the best parts of "Caravan" was watching pianist Russell Wilson's masterfully improvised solos because a few years back, I took a jazz appreciation class from Russell and that man has forgotten more about jazz than most of us will ever know, so hearing him play is always a treat.

VCU's Doug Richards, whom Rex called "one of the best arrangers in the world...and he lives right here," had done a beautifully inventive take on Billy Strayhorn's classic "Lush Life," which came next.

Before the last piece, Rex warned us not to be afraid even though it had been arranged by James Stephenson, he who'd done "Rextreme."

From the start of "A Tribute to Louis Armstrong," the crowd's pleasure in the joyous melodies everyone knows was palpable.

"Hello Dolly" about caused apoplexy and "What a Wonderful Life" got everyone sentimental.

But they couldn't leave us like that, so they finished with "When the Saints Come Marching In," a surefire way to get everyone in the cheap seats clapping along.

And while those of us up there hadn't paid $76 to hear a night of jazz, I'm willing to bet we enjoyed it just as much as those who did.

Mile markers and mozzarella, racers and Rex, what a wonderful life indeed.

Besides, you know how we people are.

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