Vernel Bagneris is speaking by phone from Arkansas. He's touring as a song-and-dance man, with longtime friend and collaborator, clarinetist Orange Kellin. But he's not sure where in Arkansas he is. "I just got here," Bagneris explains. "Yesterday, I was in New Orleans, working as dance consultant for Unchain My Heart, the Ray Charles movie."
Bagneris has never studied dance, but he's also never been one to let details like that get him down. I remember running into him on the streets of the French Quarter several decades ago. He was on his way to an audition as a tap dancer, the only trouble -- he confessed, with a fatalistic shrug -- was that he didn't know how to tap dance. "People take years learning how do that percussive thing with their feet," he explained. "I don't have time to learn all that. I'll use hips and attitude." He got the part.
In those days, Bagneris was an enthusiastic young actor/director/producer -- putting on serious-minded plays, such as Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, in school auditoriums and church basements. He also performed around town, picking up experience and making his mark locally. Or, as he sums up those early days: "I did Steam Bath. I did Godspell. I did Hair, when I had hair!"
One Mo' Time changed all that. It began "with a wing and a prayer" like all his other endeavors. In 1979, the French Market Corp. gave him a $500 grant to do a historical play on the subject of black vaudeville in the Jazz Age.
"We built the set in my courtyard at 808 St. Philip," Bagneris remembers. "The band would be rehearsing in the kitchen and the girls would roll up the living room rug to practice the dances.
"Joanne Clevenger (now the owner of The Upperline Restaurant) had a vintage clothing store on Decatur. I asked her to do the costumes. She said, 'Vernel, I used to come to The Cafe Creole when you were a waiter, don't you remember?' And I said, 'Two eggs, over easy, dry wheat and grits'-- that's what she always ordered.
"The premiere took place at midnight, as a one-night stand, in the Toulouse Theater (now the Shim Sham Club). The show came back for two nights, then four nights, then six. Eventually, Orange -- who was the music director -- got a tape to the D'Lugoff brothers, the owners of the Village Gate."
Then came New York, and then London, Europe, Australia and a U.S. tour. A legion of local singers got on the "Freedom Train," as they jokingly referred to Bagneris' theatrical bonanza; among others, B. J. Crosby, Carol Sutton, Lilian Boutté, Juanita Brooks, Barbara Shorts, Wanda Rouzan, Frozine Thomas and Sharon Nabonne.
It was in the quiet moments of the U.S. tour that Jelly Roll was born. Bagneris and pianist Morton Gunnar Larsen would find themselves at a piano in an empty ballroom of the hotel where they were staying and would amuse themselves by singing old blues and rags. Years later, in the early '90s, when the Oslo Jazz Fest asked Larsen to do something in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Morton's birth, those late-night jams with Bagneris came to mind.
Jelly Roll: The Man and His Music, starring Bagneris and Larsen, opened Off-Broadway in 1994. Some of its magic no doubt arises from the uncanny resemblance of the performer and his model -- a resemblance that's more than skin deep, as both men grew up in that New Orleans French/African Creole culture with roots as deep as the city itself. The show won a Best Performance Obie, shared by Bagneris and Larsen, among a host of other awards and nominations.
For Jazz Fest, Bagneris will bring what he calls "the family" back together. Kellin and Larsen will be onstage, as well as original cast members Topsy Chapman and Thais Clark. B.J. Crosby (Lady B.J. to the faithful) will also rejoin the show. A new generation will discover these two classic New Orleans mini-musicals. As for us seasoned veterans, we'll just be out there shouting, "One mo' time!"