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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Nov 19 1997
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In the gathering dark outside the Justice League, two lines stretch down the block, patiently awaiting entrance into Sam Shepard's Suicide in Bb, a mystery play about a missing jazzman that features real musicians acting alongside normal thespians. Co-producer J.J. Morgan steps out into the night air and reluctantly informs the folks in the walk-up line that the show is sold out. His friends tell him that turning people away can only help the play's buzz, but Morgan is clearly disturbed.

"This isn't New York," he says. "San Francisco doesn't play that." Morgan is the 26-year-old taste-maker who helped found the Up & down Club in 1992 and shaped that SOMA supper club into the core of San Francisco's new jazz scene (alongside the Elbo Room). After putting out two well-regarded jazz compilations with the local musicians who played there, Morgan sold his share of the business and co-founded 3rdSet, the production company presenting tonight's performance. Suicide in Bb is the first project for Morgan and his partners, local novelist and screenwriter Don Bajema and producer/director Starr Sutherland. The trio's next slated project will be a film involving many of tonight's players.

"We had to prove that these musicians can act as well as play," says Bajema. The musicians to whom he refers are Up & down alum: drummer Josh Jones, vocalist Scheherazade Stone, bassist Marcus Shelby, pianist Dred Scott, and saxophonist Kenny Brooks. Tonight they will perform alongside veteran actors Kelvin Han Yee, Sean San Jose, and John Robb.

"I didn't know if I would ever work with these guys again," says Morgan. "I had to hope that I would, but you're never sure."

Inside the ultrahip environs of the Justice League nightclub, the seated crowd is evenly divided between theater lovers who have come to see a rarely performed Shepard piece and jazz lovers who couldn't pass up an evening with Morgan's supergroup. Onstage, the band soars through an Eddie Marshall number, followed by some Charlie Parker. The sounds are immaculate, and the audience members -- like Mark Petrakis, who appeared opposite Danny Glover in the early '80s San Francisco debut of Suicide in Bb -- are more than appreciative. Aside from a neurotic blonde at the back of the bar, conversation is reduced to an occasional supportive murmur.

Stone slinks onstage to sing "Since I Fell for You," a slow, druggy rendition that leaves more than a few cigarettes forgotten until the embers reach the soft webs between the smokers' fingers. Director Val Hendrickson scans the crowd, satisfied. "The cross-pollination is remarkable, isn't it?"

During the last number, Yee (as Detective Louis) and Jose (as Detective Pablo) appear in the audience, brandishing police-issue revolvers. They join the band onstage, entering the home and rehearsal space of a missing jazzman named Niles. Robb, who had beforehand been lingering around the bar with a saxophone around his neck, joins the band for "rehearsal."

As with many Sam Shepard plays, Suicide in Bb explores the nature of identity and the possibility of hereditary insanity (Curse of the Starving Class, True West, etc.). The pace is kinetic and the audience soon realizes that the detectives are, each in their own way, coming unhinged -- Louis is down-and-out, anti-authoritarian, paranoid, and delusional, while Pablo is stressed-out, ambitious, paranoid, and delusional.

The music, with its crazy rhythms and demanding tones, is the impetus behind their unraveling, and this is the crux of Suicide in Bb. Louis tries to get inside the mind of the missing jazzman; it is as if he is crawling inside the music itself. The rhythm of the spoken lines matches the music; each action coincides with a beat.

In this setting, with these players, it's clear that Suicide in Bb is as much a treatise on the nature of music (specifically improvisational jazz) as it is on the nature of man: By the time the waves of music wash over the stage again, Louis screams, "I feel like I've slid into somebody else's head."

"I'm used to Tommy Dorsey, the Mills Brothers, Benny Goodman," Louis continues. "All this free-form stuff leaves me feeling nauseous." The irony is not lost on the musicians or the crowd.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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