Review: Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley Is a Powerful Tribute to the South Side, Then and Now

Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley is a tribute to a decade-plus of people jamming in a garage near 50th and Champlain, created by artistic director and choreographer Kia S. Smith. The music was jazz at its purest, undiluted by popular influences and performed by musicians, artists, and poets. Smith’s father was the legendary saxophone player Jimmy Ellis; he drew on a community of artists to create Jazz in the Alley. Under the leadership and vision of Kia S. Smith, South Chicago Dance Theatre (SCDT) revives and celebrates that time of creative flow and growth.

Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley is promoted as a futurist and nonlinear journey. At the center of the journey is the Lady in Red who lives several experiences of joy, grief, and violence. This journey is narrated by the Sandman, danced by the incredible Trey Alexander. The Sandman is an entity in music and in folklore that induces a dream state to tell a story. Alexander recreates the valor, menace, and mysticism of the character as a looming and sometimes contorted creature.

The Lady in Red is danced by Kim Davis, a main ensemble member of SCDT. A red dress carries a lot of meaning as a collective cultural symbol. If you are going to wear a red dress, expect anything. It is sexy and dangerous and not everyone can carry it off. Where I come from, a woman who wears a red dress is up for anything and is quite often scandalous. Davis’s movement puts the character in a prism—many shades of red, so to speak.

Smith’s choreography is a formidable mix of styles that add up to a jazz purist sensibility. The ensemble is made of dancers dedicated to their craft who are also actors, giving the roles gravitas. This journey through the South Side of the 1960s and ’70s requires gravitas and a dedication to authenticity and to jazz music.

The music for Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley is thoughtfully curated to reflect the history and reverence that the artists in the Alley had for the music. Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few are the presenters of the sonic landscape. This was a live accompaniment of music by Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and a dozen other giants of jazz. Collier did the composing and arranging for the music that includes pieces by Smith. Collier is a saxophonist who is influenced by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ernest Dawkins, and by other genres as well.

The journey is divided into a prelude, opening, and then a trip to four lands—Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green. It’s very Wizard of Oz re-imagined by way of Afro-Futurism. In L. Frank Baum’s tale of Oz, Dorothy is led through four lands of the same colors ruled by witches with the Wizard standing in for the Sandman. In the book, the Munchkins were Blue and you had to wear green-tinted goggles in the Emerald City. The Lady in Red is part of an urban adventure with anticipation of the new. She is fearless in her pursuit of beauty and passion on her terms. The enactment of sexual violence may be triggering (as it was for one audience member), but the Lady in Red uses that grief and anger to emerge whole and wiser.

Each color or step of the journey is accompanied by the amazing projections of Rasean Davonte Johnson. His projection designs have been seen in operas, dance performances, and theaters all over Chicago and the US. Moody shots of a picture frame contain kinetic splashes of colors. Projections of windows tell a story. Layers of color are mixed in with the sound and the hot choreography. The projections are better than a traditional setting for this production. The projections enhance a surreal Afro-Futurist vibe, adding a dash of Sun Ra and Lonnie Liston Smith at his trippiest.

Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley was premiered for one night only at the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday before a full house. The collaboration of the sparkling South Chicago Dance Theatre ensemble, Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few, Rasean Davonté Johnson, and the vision of Kia S. Smith is an intoxicating brew that is not to be missed. SCDT performs again on April 24, 2024, at the Auditorium Theatre. 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. Put it on your calendar in ink.

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Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.