“Porgy and Bess” is being reimagined yet again, this time by Charleston’s local big band, which presents a new jazz suite this Saturday at the Charleston Music Hall.
It began with a 1925 book, “Porgy,” whose author insisted could not be dramatized on the stage. But Edwin DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, secretly transformed it into a script, claiming she was working quietly on a detective novel.
When she showed DuBose a draft of the play, he liked it. She had changed more than the genre; she had changed the ending. In the novel, Bess departs for Savannah, leaving the desolate Porgy behind. In the play, she goes to New York City, and Porgy calls for his goat, suggesting he might try to follow her. It ends on a more hopeful note.
The inflections of the dialogue are clearly influenced by Heyward’s knowledge of Gullah culture. But when George Gershwin got a hold of the play and decided to transform the story once again, into an opera, the musical language was more Yiddish than Gullah, more Broadway than Lowcountry, says Harlan Greene, an archivist of the College of Charleston’s special collections and an expert on the history of “Porgy and Bess” and its authors.
“A lot of Gullah vocal rhythms survive in the play,” Greene says, especially during the street-cry section.
But the opera sheds many of the Heywards’ literary conceits and embraces instead the popular theater vernacular of the time, Tin Pan Alley, injected with strong doses of Gershwin’s signature style.
Over the years, the opera has provided material for many musicians, its songs cropping up on recording after recording in various arrangements and featuring all sorts of singers.
On Saturday, “Porgy and Bess” will undergo its latest transformation. For several months, Jazz Artists of Charleston, which produces the Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s big band concert series, has been working with saxophonist Robert Lewis on a new “Porgy” jazz suite for the CJO.
The idea was born when Jack McCray, the local jazz impresario and founder of the Jazz Artists of Charleston, was alive: Wouldn’t it be great for the city’s resident big band to have a new “Porgy” set that it could perform repeatedly, in and out of town, for years to come?
Then last year, the idea was brought up at an advisory board meeting, and Lewis, who also runs the jazz program at the College of Charleston, volunteered to arrange the music.
He has selected 10 tunes from the opera. Some will feature vocals by JAC director and sultry singer Leah Suarez and by band leader and trumpet master Charlton Singleton. Others will be instrumental renditions.
“I was familiar with the tunes, but not the whole opera,” Lewis says. “So the first thing I did was acquaint myself with the piece. I grew to respect it a lot.”
The next thing he did, with help from a music software program called Sibelius, was conceive an arrangement that had “its own identity and character.”
“I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ ” employs a lot of jumpin’ jive, for example. “I Loves You, Porgy” is like a Coltrane ballad, with rubato and pedal tones. “My Man’s Gone Now” is akin to a funeral dirge. “Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way” is a gospel number.
One of Lewis’ goals was to reintroduce Gullah inflections to “Porgy.” To do this, he relied on rhythm, he said, lending a couple of the numbers that loose, throbbing, syncopated beat associated with the Lowcountry and thus reinforcing “Porgy’s” roots with pluff mud and oyster beds.
“That was something that wasn’t there (in the original), and it makes so much sense for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra to do that,” Lewis said.
It’s a sophisticated rhythm, half-pulse and half-feeling, that originates in coastal West Africa but shows up in the Southeast United States because of slavery. In this part of the world, the African inflections combined with European traditions and popular American music to become jazz.
A big band treatment of the music is not a stretch; “Porgy and Bess” always has inspired jazz musicians, one of whom, Cab Calloway, directed a big band and starred in the 1952 production of the opera, Greene notes.
“It is the one thing that has taken the Lowcountry to the stages of the world,” he says. “Whoever heard of Charleston, South Carolina, in Vienna or La Scala, Italy?”
“Porgy” put Charleston on the world map.
Greene calls the canonic work a fusion of culture. The original book was written by an aristocratic white man, a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (who owned slaves). The opera was written by the son of immigrant Jews. And at the center of the story is a black beggar, the iconic character of Charleston, a city that was (and remains) its own fusion of cultures.
“So in some respects, there’s real justice there,” Greene says. “It’s great that the opera actually does that.”
And Lewis’ “Porgy” jazz suite extends the practice of mixing cultures and musical styles. In it, one discovers not only the buzz of Catfish Row and clatter of the docks, but the diverse language of love, loss, joy and sorrow that is uniquely American and located right here in Charleston.