Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts
20919 Denny Road
Saturday and Sunday, July 19-20
$50 ($25 for students)
Tickets via tickets.wildwoodpark.org or 821-7275.
If Louis Jordan, the Brinkley-born musical pioneer who's credited, but not widely celebrated, as one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll, were still alive this year, he'd be 100. So it makes sense that Stephen Koch, who's been championing Jordan's legacy for nearly 20 years, would rally the troops for a year of celebration.
Koch's fascination with Jordan began, he says, “literally bouncing on my father's knee to songs like ‘Beans & Cornbread.' ” His dad was, at one point in his career, a DJ who “imparted love of music and its makers, especially stuff like ragtime, stride piano, blues, early jazz and Louis Jordan.” On down the road in adulthood, in the early '90s, Koch started formally researching Jordan for the University of Arkansas's “Arkansas Biography” book project. More or less since then, he's led the charge to keep Jordan's legacy alive. In 1997, he founded the Louis Jordan Tribute Concert, the proceeds from which funded the creation of a bust of Jordan that now sits in the Brinkley Central Delta Depot Museum (the same train depot where Louis used to porter bags as a kid, Koch reports enthusiastically). Koch, too, helped land Jordan in the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2005.
So far this year for the centennial, Koch has given talks and hosted radio specials and helped curate a film series (Jordan's “talkies” were proto-music videos). But don't fret, Jordan-philes, the big fetes don't get underway until today. First, on Thursday, Arkansongs, the weekly radio show that Koch hosts and produces, airs a special hour-long broadcast on Jordan's life with local radio personality Billy St. James playing the role of Jordan. Then, Saturday and Sunday, Wildwood Park for the Arts, in cooperation with a host of other munificent local groups, presents “Jump!,” a biographical play written by Koch.
But first, an appeal to the stomach that Jordan, author of arguably the greatest collection of food songs in popular music, would approve of. A catfish fry, with sides like collard greens and sweet potato pie, precedes the play each night. The theme will be especially in line on Saturday — Jordan's “Saturday Night Fish Fry” might be his greatest song.
“Jump!,” which will be staged in Wildwood's 600-seat Lucy Lockett Cabe Festival Theatre, follows the story of Jordan as told by “himself” (with the help of several Jordanettes, the performer's backup singers) at different stages in his career, Koch says. An all-star cast and crew comes together to put it on. Cliff Fanin Baker, the park's director, directs. The Rep's decorated set designer Mike Nichols contributes. Lawrence Hamilton, the renowned Arkansas performer, stars as Jordan. And Tawanna Campbell, one of Little Rock's most impressive R&B singers, is also featured. A five-man “jump” band also factors in, featuring noteworthy locals like Stratsimir Pavlov and Joe Vick. And video, featuring archival footage of Jordan, will also be included.
A special note: Look for Martha Jordan, Louis's widow, in attendance.
“The Louis Jordan Story: An Arkansongs Special”
7 p.m. Thursday, July 17, and 1 p.m. Sunday, July 20.
Later in July, the U.S. Post Office is scheduled to release a Louis Jordan stamp, as part of the “Black Cinema” series, featuring the poster for “Caldonia.”
Koch and filmmaker Kevin Clark (“The Old Gray Lady”) are at work on a documentary called “Is You Is” that should be complete this fall.