Preview: Jazz artist Theron Brown composes music for City Theatre’s ‘Paradise Blue’

By Sharon Eberson

In his latest musical venture in Pittsburgh, Theron Brown sees himself as a link in the jazz chain that stretches from Detroit to Pittsburgh.

Theron Brown

A circa-1949 jazz club in the Motor City is the setting for the play Paradise Blue, coming to City Theatre on March 12 with original music by Brown.

The Akron, Ohio-based jazz pianist will be in concert as part of a quartet at MCG Jazz on Wednesday, March 2, celebrating MCG Jazz and City Theatre’s collaboration on the production of Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau.

While Brown is new to the South Side company and scoring for theater, this is City’s third go-round with a Morisseau play, after Sunset Baby and Pipeline. The playwright is currently represented on Broadway with Skeleton Crew, and she wrote the book for the Temptations’ musical Ain’t Too Proud.

Paradise Blue is part of a trilogy representing Morisseau’s hometown. It tells the story of Blue, a trumpeter with a traumatic past who owns the Paradise Club in Detroit’s changing Black Bottom neighborhood and the women in his life.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson directed the New York premiere of Paradise Blue in 2018 and City’s 2022 production. The South Side theater has Kent Gash, founding director of the NYU Tisch School’s New Studio on Broadway. Last year, Gash was named artistic director of The Acting Company, the venerable nationwide touring theater. The cast comprises City co-artistic director Monteze Freeland, Wali Jamal, Melva Graham, Eunice Woods, and Rafael Jordan as Blue.

For this play about a musician, City’s production will feature live music and music recorded at MCG Jazz, all composed by Brown.

In a recent Zoom interview, Brown said having an actor who can play his character’s instrument – Blue is a trumpeter – is a big plus as he creates the sound of the Paradise Club. That’s something Brown himself has had some experience with. His own piano-playing skills came in handy when he portrayed a young Herbie Hancock in the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle.

Among his accomplishments, Brown has played for audiences from Cleveland to Toronto to Mumbai and with artists such as trumpeter Sean Jones and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In Akron, he is the founder and artistic director of the annual Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival and an arts educator and administrator.

Brown was featured in a 2021 BNY Mellon presents JazzLive @Home video, a free online series produced by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, in which you can catch him playing with his jazz trio and at home with his two toddlers …

“Three. It’s three babies now,” Brown said in a recent Zoom interview.
Here is more of what Brown had to say about scoring a play for the first time, prioritizing family, and more as he prepared for the MCG Jazz concert and Paradise Blue, March 12-April 3 at City Theatre.

Question: Have you been to MCG Jazz before?

Theron Brown: I’ve seen maybe one concert there, but I just went and visited for the first time and was super impressed with everything – how it looks, the remodeling, and so much programming going on for kids and other stuff.

Q: You’ve been back and forth to Pittsburgh to do a lot of shows, but the play at City is your first scoring gig.

Theron Brown: I’ve done little things for other kinds of productions, but yeah, this is the first time being in this creative space with a director like Kent. It’s a very new experience in some ways, but not too far off from other things I’ve been involved in.

Q: How do you find a starting point composing for a play?

Theron Brown: I’ve been studying this music for a long time, so I know what that period brings and what the culture was surrounding those kinds of issues. So, for me, it was really getting into the script and learning the characters and how they proceed through this world because they have so many individual traits that we can all relate to. I am trying to make the music just accompany that in a way that doesn’t take too much from the text and things, but we will give each character their own theme song, almost something that represents them.

Q: Is the music going to be live or recorded?

Theron Brown: It’s going to be a bit of both. We have the pleasure of having the lead actor actually play trumpet, which is beyond me to be that talented at acting and playing trumpet pretty well. Then we will be making some prerecorded music at the MCG studio.

Q: Is writing for the trumpet new to you?

Theron Brown: It’s not too new. I’ve been around the trumpet a lot. My first professor was Jack Schantz, and he’s a trumpet player. Then I had the honor of being mentored by people like Sean Jones. Even when he was in Pittsburgh, he was still coming to Ohio a lot, so I would get to hang with him. And then, some of my peers now, like Tommy Lehman and Curtis Taylor – those are some really great trumpeters. And Frank Walton, too. I’ve got to mention him. There are some really great Ohio trumpet players, so the sound’s there.

Q: I know Dominique Morisseau writes a lot about Detroit, but this is going to be a familiar story for Pittsburghers. August Wilson wrote about urban redevelopment back in the day. Are those the kind of things from the script that you think about, and how does that translate musically?

Theron Brown: I definitely think about those things and that time period. Like you said, this is something that happened everywhere; in certain places may be worse than others. But yeah, when it comes to highways being built, redlining, school zoning, these were all a part of that Black story. You’d sometimes see that the cities would flip-flop, where the businesses for non-Black communities started to go down. They would switch areas, maybe, or just reconfigure.

So, the music, I feel, jazz is like a freedom music, right? It’s a language; at that time, to me, it’s a high art, and it’s all that they had to hang onto. So it reflected the feelings. Maybe it was chaos or love or all of those things at the same time because jazz is so complex. You can go from somebody like Mingus to somebody like Art Blakey. They are very powerful in their own rights but have very different approaches to music, but it’s all coming from the same place. … It’s really hard to explain.

Q: And then I think about the fine line between blues and jazz, or the blending of both, depending upon who the artist is and what they’re trying to say, like you say, it’s hard to describe.

Theron Brown: I would say it’s definitely blended, and it all comes from the same place. Definitely, the blues is the backbone of American music. I think, if we want to look at American music, you’ll find that DNA all through it, and it’s undeniable, no matter what your race is. People all over the world can recognize that sound.

Q: So you have to take all of that and make it work in a play. Were there certain things the director gave you as cues, musically or emotionally, or were there some things that you discussed that set you on a path?

Theron Brown:A: Kent, when I first met him, that’s when I knew this was going to be something that I really wanted to do, because of the way he imagines things and his creativity. He doesn’t put too many boundaries on me, but gives me just enough description to make it happen. I think seeing him work with the actors, especially, the last couple weeks, and the actors actually making the characters come to life, has been a big help. I had been reading the play in black and white and now it has just been opened up to me. Art forms are the same, whether it’s dance, drawing, painting or acting, like, when I’m playing, sometimes I might play in a certain style, and I’m thinking of Bud Powell or throwing in some Thelonius Monk. In this case, it’s a much larger pallet of creativity, just because we have moods and motions and emotions to navigate. So hearing him tailor the character’s mood, OK, now I’ve got to be a little more sensitive to that than just my own musical ideas. It has to fit the situation, and Kent’s really, he’s a genius. It’s been so cool working with him.

Q: Were you aware of City Theatre before this?

Theron Brown: This was all brand new, and honestly, in the back of my head, I’d always wanted to do something like this. It was the perfect opportunity to get involved, and of course, I love Pittsburgh. I’m here all the time.

Q: Is this the experience you thought it would be, and what are you getting out of it?

Theron Brown: Well, I think obviously it’s a pressure thing, so I get to exercise within that realm. It makes you level up to whatever you need to do. That can sometimes be discouraging, but, in this case, it’s actually really good that there’s obviously structure around the play. So there should be a little bit of structure around the music, too, to just help guide those things. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it’s just new and unknown. That’s what I think jazz is for me anyway; it’s exciting improvised. Every time I get on the stage, there’s that type of, “OK, well, we’ll see where this goes.” It’s how I live my life and how I’m approaching this play, too. You’re like, “Well, they called me, so I must have something to offer.” Then, also, it’s like I got addicted to this. The first day, just seeing them do the read-through, I was like, “OK, I can do this kind of production. This is fun.” And I can only imagine what getting into the movie world might be, too, now, because this is pretty similar.

Q: Is it unusual to write something for someone else and see it performed, to just let it go?

Theron Brown: I’m pretty used to that. I really like that part of it the most because to hear other people’s ideas, I feel like they just take mine and make it that much better, which is another thing I like about jazz when you write music. You get other people to interpret it, well, it could be worse than what’s in your head, but most of the time it’s better.

Q: You usually perform with a trio, but you’re with a quartet in the concert here? Is that because of how you’re recording the music too?

Theron Brown: That’s right, that’s right. We have Dwayne Dolphin on bass and James Johnson III, Pittsburgh legends, and Tommy Lehman joining us, who’s a trumpeter from Akron, Ohio.

We aren’tg recording different pieces to be played throughout, just with different moods and maybe different tempos, some brighter, some darker. Then yeah, we’ll be giving a concert with that same group, which will really celebrate Pittsburgh jazz and Detroit jazz, bridging those gaps. Because you know, Midwest, even me being in Ohio, there was just that Union Depot, which was built early on, but that’s how a lot of musicians and just workers, in general, traveled to Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Chicago, Detroit. You can even get to New York, I think, from Akron on that train. So there’s a lot of history, I think, in this whole Rust Belt, Midwest thing that’s very relevant.

Q: You worked with Don Cheadle on a movie about Miles Davis, and now that you’re doing this for the stage, is acting or scoring for movies something you would like to pursue?

Theron Brown: I think it’s something that, yeah, I have to experience in my lifetime. Being on the production side of Paradise Blue and Miles Ahead just gave me the best of both sides. I’m seeing the camera action and all this stuff, Don Cheadle, this high-level production stuff, and then here it’s the same thing, but I’m on the creative process, which is, I think, even more, invigorating to be a part of. So yeah, either way, if it’s acting, I’m hyped. I loved it, and it’s addicting. Or if it’s composing for movies, I’d love to try that, too. And theater, still, too, this is a lot of fun.

Q: Now that we are on this hopeful road towards coming back from a long hiatus, what was the pandemic like for you – and with three babies at home?

Theron Brown: I think my priorities have shifted a lot since everything’s changed. I did get out of university teaching. I’m not at Kent State anymore, and I moved to what’s called Curated Storefront. They put a lot of different art in Downtown Akron, revitalizing urban areas in general. But my job is I’m the artistic director and coordinator for the artist residency program at I Promise School. I’ve found that to be a better adjustment with my time, and to be at home with the kids, I can do a lot of that work from home. So it was really a godsend at the time.

Making music that’s changed so much. I used to play almost every other day. That really, yeah, I had to literally just almost change the chemistry in my brain to settle down, come to terms with, “OK, I’m going to have to make some different adjustments unselfishly for my family.” It’s been good leaning into that and just having to be a little more picky with projects, which ones you can take on and which ones you can’t. Now I have this administrative job, which is totally different, but I think it’s helped me build other skills, too. I think, if I look at it like that, it keeps me sane.

Q: So, having the family and having the new job and the pandemic, were you still very active and able to do a lot of things?

Theron Brown: Yeah, we pushed through. We were lucky to have, through the jazz festival, we were able to get some funding and still have performances and programming. Other organizations were putting on special concerts that were viewed virtually or something. It was nice to be able to be a part of that and also help curate some of that stuff for the scene and keep folks working and eating.

Q: City Theatre is well into an in-person season now, and that feels like things are back on track.

Theron Brown: I’m just happy that they reached out to me, and they trust me with the project. Pittsburgh, like I said, I’ve been coming up here since probably 2008-ish. It’s definitely a second family, Midwest thing. So yeah, I’m just happy to be here and get to hang with a lot of old friends and local musicians and do this thing.

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