Side Man at American Blues Theatre

By Warren Leight
Director: Jonathan Berry

Produced by American Blues Theatre
At the Greenhouse Theatre, Chicago
Side Man is a look at the foibles of jazz musicians

Side Man is a memory drama with insights into the world of jazz musician; it is a family saga and an ode to a way-of-life that is now extinct. It was the 1999 Tony Award winning for Best Drama – Side Man  uses underscoring of smooth 40’s – 50’s recorded jazz music including outstanding trumpet horn-work and smartly stylish shadow images of New York and jazz men doing their thing. A local Chicago jazz group: Art Davis on trumpet, Phil Gratteau on drums, Dennis Luxion on piano and Kirk Garrison on trumpet deftly perform (and record) jazz standards “Afternoon of a Faun,” “I Remember Clifford,” ” Willow Weep for Me,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls ” that we hear throughout this powerful work.
Director Jonathan Berry has mounted a hauntingly powerful drama that vividly depicts a long-lost way of life – the world of the purist jazz musician of America. We meet the empathetic Michael Mahler, playing Clifford, the son of the quintessential Side Man ( defined –  “Side Men are generally required to be adaptable to many different styles of music, and so able to fit smoothly into the group in which they are currently playing”). Gene is a purist jazz trumpeter who lives to “blow.”  Gene (Michael Ehler in a subdued performance) is the most admired member of the local jazz men. Al (John Gawlik), Jonesy (Joe Faust), and Ziggy (Edward Kross) are the drug-addicted jazz musicians who travel the circuit as big band or session musicians. These dysfunctional characters are totally consumed by their jazz music lifestyle. Each can only function when playing jazz music. The speak ‘jazz,’ they add much funny dark humor and they make fun of naive non-jazz types. sidemanensembleClifford narrates his family story that centers on his alcoholic and neurotic (insane?) mother, Terry (the manic Kate Buddeke) who becomes smitten by the stoic trumpeter Gene in the early 1950’s. Clifford’s memories vividly depict the bittersweet life that found Clifford assuming the role as functioning head of household beginning at age ten due to Terry drinking too much and Gene returning from his gigs almost comatose.  Gene is trapped in his “twilight of a mediocre career” and he lives ONLY to blow his horn. Playwright Warren Leight hones into the seedy and bleak world of the purist musicians.sideman4The risk of fame and fortune to the the purity of what makes Gene (and the others) exist only to play their music is effectively dramatized when the jazz-men sit around listening to a cassette tape  of an admired, expert trumpet solo. The jazz man on the tape is dead, but his instrument remains feverishly alive, a fact confirmed in the ecstatic faces of  Gene and his pals. Nothing more need be said as to why these musicians live to play.We see how Terry’s drinking, her loneliness, and her mental illness renders her near nonfunctional as a mother, wife and person. Her rants scare Clifford and bewilder Gene. All become trapped in a most dysfunctional family that inspires Clifford to eventually abounded. once he realizes that neither Terry or Gene are likely ever to change.sideman6Side Man is a hauntingly raw yet beautiful  and,  at times, a hilarious memory play that colorfully offers a glimpse into the world of the fanatic artist. It also dramatize the effects of  shattered dreams and lack of ambition on a family. Michael Mahler and Michael Ehler lead the superb cast of misfits and fanatics.  The jazz riffs add authenticity and bounce  to the production.  We enjoy and become consumed into the unstable world of the jazz musician. We commiserate with their siblings yet we love their art. Side Man is a searing drama of the joy of artistic creativity and the despair of life apart from that process. See this show.

Highly Recommended
Tom Williams
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: April 30, 2015
At the Greenhoust Theatre,  2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-404-7336,, tickets $29 – $39, Thursdays-thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm, Saturday matinees at 3 pm on May 16 7 23rd, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through May 24, 2015