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Actors’ Playhouse has been a musical powerhouse for much of its history. Launching its 30th anniversary season at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, the company is revisiting some of that history with a new production of a made-for-South Florida favorite: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita.” As it did in 2000 when recent Tony Award winner Rachel Bay Jones starred as Eva Duart..

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for “Topdog/Underdog” in 2002. But as Zoetic Stage’s superb new production of the play at Miami’s Arsht Center demonstrates, her funny, shocking tale of two brothers struggling to survive is as potent today as it was 15 years ago. Maybe more so, given the country’s deepening divide. Parks’ harrowing drama examines the complex relation..

We are born. We live, have families, grow old. We die, leaving those who loved us to mourn. Playwright Thornton Wilder brilliantly captured the eternal verities of our journey through life in “Our Town,” his 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about life, love and death in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century. If you’re at all drawn to theater, you’ve probably ..

“Miami Motel Stories: Little Havana” written by Juan C. Sanchez, directed by Tamilla Woodard, and produced by Juggerknot Theatre Company, is a site-specific, immersive theater experience that interweaves narrative, performance, history and architecture. Nine short plays take place in nine hotel rooms on the second floor of the Tower Hotel, right off Calle Ocho on Seventh Street. Sanchez, ..

Artistic director and founder of Juggerknot Theatre Company, Tanya Bravo, had her first brush with immersive theater in New York City when she met director Tamilla Woodard. Working on the play “Broken City,” Bravo and other actors led audience members on a theatrical journey through the streets of the Lower East Side. “I was so blown away by the concept and the lines that were crossed between ..

We humans do love our rituals. When an extended family gathers for the holidays, familiar traditions promise a comforting respite from an increasingly complex, chaotic world. Still, realistically, troubles and fears refuse to be left behind. They surface like unwelcome guests. So do resentments and stinging remarks born of deep knowledge. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, you wonder: ..

After a tryout run in Chicago, 34 previews and 746 performances on Broadway, and a tour launch in Buffalo, “On Your Feet!” has finally opened in the place where Cuban-born music superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan made their dreams come true: Miami. At Friday’s red carpet opening at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, with the Estefans and their extended family in atte..

Whether the comedy is high or low, performer-writer Steve Martin has been making moviegoers, “Saturday Night Live” fans and theater lovers laugh for more than half a century – hard to believe it’s been that long, but he started early. Martin’s way with both cerebral jokes and physical comedy is abundantly on display in “The Underpants,” his 2002 adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s once-ban..

Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall” begins as a wary conversation between two strangers: Rick, a white male convict awaiting a likely death sentence, and Gloria, a black female historian and college professor. For 90 minutes, the two talk. She probes; he explains and justifies and slowly paints a picture of a man-made Seventh Circle of Hell. By the time the play ends, the audience ..

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ award-winning play “An Octoroon” layers an antebellum melodrama with 21st-century parlance and perspective. The result is an innovative play-within-a-play that skillfully reminds us of slavery’s horrible past and its ever-present legacy. Area Stage Company’s production, thoughtfully directed by John Rodaz, brings together a talented cast to ensure this melodra..

Promising a night of airiness and ardor, Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami will bring “Ballet’s Pointe of Passion” to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where the company joins an att..

Great friendships can nurture and prod an artist to make greater work. Think Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Such is also the case fo..

It’s a tall order to present a season as surprising as it is moving, as disturbing as it is delightful. Miami-Dade College’s Live Arts 2017-2018 season -- Ojala/Inshallah: Wishes from the Mu..

It was only a few decades ago that finding a professional, locally produced performance was an aerobic dance in itself. But after the Miami City Ballet (established 1985), the New World Schoo..

A 50th anniversary calls for gold in celebration. But Balanchine’s “Jewels”­—a sublime marriage of music and choreography from 1967—brings Emeralds, Rubies,and Diamonds. Those pre..

When the Limon Dance Company returns to Miami-Dade this weekend, it brings with it the powerful vision of founder José Limon. He was a man deeply concerned about and connected to the humanity..

When Cardi B, with her trademark no-filter attitude, raps in her recent hit “Bodak Yellow” – Now I don’t got to dance/I make money move – she has something to sing about, with her smash hit N..

Despite a packed show schedule, including performing with the Frankfurt Opera in “Rinaldo,” Sarasota native, dancer and choreographer James McGinn had a chance to discuss the upcoming dance-opera ..

Anniversaries usually celebrate the success of a partnership with symbolic gifts of crystal, china, silver and gold. For the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida, the company celebrates 20 years of..

In the Blood: James Blood Ulmer’s Jazz and Blues Odyssey

Photo: Julia Wesely
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There’s a song James Blood Ulmer sings called “Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher.” If you bring in Mother Blues, along with the family hothead, Rock and Roll, you’ll have a better picture of the musical pedigree of this iconic guitar player and singer. With over 70 years performing behind him, Ulmer, who closes Tigertail Productions’ month-long “FIRE” festival this weekend, still has new revelations to make through his music.

 

There were detours down many side roads before Ulmer discovered jazz and, ultimately, the blues. During his childhood in tiny, segregated St. Matthews, South Carolina, the only music Ulmer's father would allow in the house was gospel. “When I was coming up,” Ulmer said, “we didn’t have tape recorders and all that stuff to listen to music, we had the radio station. Only music I heard coming up [on the radio] was hillbilly music….My father didn’t let no record players in his house. They were church people. Church people didn’t go for blues, no rock and roll, none of that shit.”

 

There was, of course, live music in the way of gospel, and plenty of it. “Our entertainment was going to see our family…. On Saturday nights we would have these performances where everybody in the family would sing, dance, play and everyone would sit and listen.”

 

Rehearsal, whether of speeches or Sunday school songs, were a fact of life early on. “When I was six my father started a gospel group called the Southern Sons,” said Ulmer. They sang at area churches, and even traveled to open for major gospel groups like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the National Clouds of Joy. Ulmer has been in the music business ever since.

 

At 18, he left home and quickly began filling in the gaps in his musical education. His travels read like a road map of black American music in the 20th century: “South Carolina, it was gospel, Pittsburgh, it was doo wop and R&B, then I moved to Ohio and it was progressive jazz… I moved from there to Detroit. I went to actually study music…learning how to write music down on a piece of paper.”

 

It was when Ulmer finally found his way to New York City, where he still lives, that he played with jazz greats such as drummer Art Blakey and saxophonists like Joe Henderson and Ornette Coleman. It was Coleman who would have a profound influence on Ulmer’s evolving technique.

 

Coleman had pioneered a new system of playing that he called "harmolodics," a cerebral form of new jazz that sought to free the style from traditional Western scales and harmonies. The story goes that Ulmer, having practiced chords incessantly and frustratingly at Coleman's insistence, went to sleep and dreamt of how to change his guitar’s tuning in order to unlock the key to Coleman’s harmolodic system. When he awoke, he tuned his guitar with four strings on one note and the remaining two on another. Everything suddenly worked. The way Ulmer tunes, he explained, the guitar “becomes a four-stringed instrument with a two-stringed drone. You have to leave the Western sound of the guitar to get to that.”

 

Ulmer plucks his Gibson guitar with just the thumb of his right hand. He recounted long ago seeing Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia in concert and being astonished at how Segovia plucked the strings with all five fingers. He made a vow to himself: “Now I had to make more sound with one finger than he did with five. I want to play with one finger and get more sound than Segovia. That tuning and my one finger, it’s almost there,” he laughed.

 

Indeed, as a jazz instrumentalist, Ulmer is considered an innovator and an iconoclast, taking the guitar to places it had never before been within the jazz idiom. It was only late in his career, however, at the suggestion of fellow guitarist Vernon Reid, that he eventually found his way around to the mother of all American roots music, the blues.

 

Ulmer sings and plays, and his voice is soulful, rich and ragged, with shades of Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. His “Little Red Rooster” could give Willie Dixon a run for his money, and when Ulmer lets loose his demonic cackle on his own composition, “The Devil’s Got to Burn,” you can almost imagine the legendary Robert Johnson of “Crossroad Blues” fame rising from his grave and peering up at Ulmer from over his headstone.

 

As in the beginning, when Ulmer and his brother and friends would pile into the car and his father would take them on the road to gigs, or performing on a street corner in Pittsburgh to make his $6 weekly rent, so the practical aspects of the music business shape Ulmer’s career today. Just a man and his guitar is much more flexible than a whole jazz or funk ensemble. It is also enriching artistically: “Solo is putting everything you do in one basket. I am a solo blues man,” said Ulmer with satisfaction.

 

Even at 77, Ulmer doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time looking back. “We sing to survive,” he said, “we sing to keep a certain spirit going. You keep going, and then that spirit moves on and moves on.” Reflecting back on his gospel beginnings in St. Matthews, he said, “I would like to think that I have been moving forward since then.”

 

James Blood Ulmer, FIRE festival, 8:30 p.m., Saturday, April 29, Miami-Dade County Auditorium On Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; tickets $35 general admission; tigertail.org or 305-324-4337.

 


 



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