Wizard of Oz With Vernel Bagneris This Week on Riverwalk Jazz


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This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comes to life as Broadway actor Vernel Bagneris portrays all the characters in a new script for radio based on the original L. Frank Baum book. Harold Arlen's songs from the 1939 movie score are heard in new jazz arrangements by John Sheridan.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was a best-selling book in 1900. In the introduction, Baum explains what he was hoping to achieve with his tale:

..."the story was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale; its new wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."

Critics of the time lavished praise on Baum's Wizard, and on the 154 illustrations by W.W. Denslow. Here is a collection of the illustrations from the 1900 book.

The work appeared as a stage play in 1902 as The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 Warner Brothers movie adaptation starring Judy Garland with Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Ray Bolger, and featuring a magnificent score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, remains an icon of pop culture. Like other popular songwriters of his generation, jazz was a key component of Arlen's songwriting.

Vernel Bagneris says of this production: “Delightful madness...is how I would describe the experience of my role in the Riverwalk Jazz production of Wizard. In a studio setting, holding on to the sound and vocal inflections of different characters would be challenging for any actor. But, in front of a live audience, playing all of the parts was sheer lunacy. Luckily, the Landing crowd embraced the audacious fun that the band and I were having, and cheered us on to the end. For that, I'm still grateful."

“I was actually soaked in New Orleans jazz as a child," Bagneris says, describing how live jazz was simply a part of social and family functions in New Orleans. In high school, he said he became involved in the civil rights struggle, but turned his full attention back to music and theater in college.

Bagneris created and cast his international hit musical One Mo' Time with singers and dancers he knew from the city, including Thais Clark, with whom he loved to dance at clubs around town; and Topsy Chapman, who was working in a jewelry store on Royal Street: “I said to her, 'Didn't you say you sing?'" The group rehearsed in living rooms and kitchens, opening with one midnight show that grew into a long local run and eventually seven touring companies around the world.

His musical Jelly Roll was based on recorded interviews of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton by Alan Lomax. In New York it ran the same time as Jelly's Last Jam on Broadway. Whereas many Morton fans found the Broadway show inaccurate and disappointing, Bagneris' Morton musical biography won numerous awards.

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