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Gregory Charles Royal knows what it's like to provide the soundtrack to other people's lives. As a professional musician, he is used to being part of an ensemble.

But he also got a taste of the spotlight when he played trombone onstage in "Five Guys Named Moe" at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in New York City. Similar experiences in "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" convinced him he wanted to spend more time on stage. But, he figured if he was going to experience it again, he would have to make it happen for himself.

So, with some help from Viterbo University theater arts student Denise Bird, he wrote "It's a Hardbop Life," a play featuring musicians as the principal actors. In fact, Royal wrote it for himself and musicians with whom he has worked over the years.

"I did this play in New York last year with these guys," he said, but now he's excited to be performing and taping the show in the La Crosse area, where he now lives and works. It's the first step in getting the show road-worthy, Royal said, because he definitely intends to tour it.

"It's A Hardbop Life" is about college basketball star Q, played by Royal. He is having trouble with his game, as he becomes obsessed with the music of a rapper named Meteor Man. So his coach, played by John Miller, tells Q he might get his game back if he starts listening to some good music. Coach gives Q an old record of hardbop, and as Q is enjoying the music, he falls asleep and dreams his coach, brother and teammates are all part of a 1960s jazz band called Hardbop.

Because the dream band rehearses, Royal said, it gives the real band, Black Jazz, a chance to play onstage, and the audience gets to experience some of the jazz that Royal and his friends love.

"All these musicians I've been working with for many years, but we never got to play the music we loved," Royal said.

But like him, some of them experienced the spotlight of performing in a Broadway show where the musicians are actually on stage. Once you feel that connection to the audience, it's difficult to go back and be part of an anonymous orchestra pit band, he said. "Once you're communicating with the people, you can't really go back."

Royal had it better than many musicians, he said, because he got to do a lot of solo work when he played with The Ellington Band. "But the average big band doesn't work like that."

The members of Black Jazz - Miller, Chris Albert, Mark Gross, Eric Allen and Clarence Seay - are all longtime friends of Royal.

"The drummer and the bass player and I grew up together in Washington, D.C. We've been together a long time," Royal said.

The script reflects the personalities of Royal's friends, he said, because he wrote the parts for those particular musicians.

"Some of the pranks I did" are in the script. "And the way the guys speak, I wrote it the way we do speak."

Besides helping Royal with the script, Bird is associate director of the play. Royal is the director. Other Viterbo students round out the cast, with Amanda Zeitler, Derek Harper, Ellie Boucher and Jackie Whitsett performing in the play along with WKTY DJ Steve Rowe.

Geri Parlin can be reached at gparlin@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8225.

If YOU GO

  • What: "It's a Hardbop Life"
  • When: 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Monday, Nov. 10-11; there will be a live taping both nights.
  • Where: Recital Hall at Viterbo University, La Crosse.
  • Tickets: $20, good for both days; recommended for mature audiences.
  • Another appearance: Black Jazz, the New York ensemble that will be featured in "Hardbop," will perform Nov. 12-14 at the Radisson Hotel from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and from 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday.
  • More music: Black Jazz quartet will perform at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, at the La Crosse Public Library, 800 Main St., for a children's concert. "We'll encourage them to bring their instruments, let them try improvisation," Gregory Royal said.
  • Hardbop jazz: Also know as Gospel jazz; it was a hard swinging form of jazz that combined the elements of gospel and bebop and was developed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Black jazz biographies

  • Gregory Charles Royal, (Q): He is a trombonist, performer, writer, producer and lecturer. He received a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council for the presentation of his program "Back Street Boys! Black Street Blues!", a demonstration and discussion about the impact of black music in America. In November 2001, Royal performed in New York with tap sensation Savion Glover and saxophonist Wayne Shorter in a benefit for World Trade Center Firemen. He was a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1989 to 2000. Royal was also a protégé of drummer Art Blakey, whose band, the Jazz Messengers, is the inspiration for "It's a Hardbop Life." Royal was a member of the original Broadway production of "Five Guys Named Moe" and performed with the original Broadway cast of "Ain't Misbehavin" and in the national tour of "Jelly's Last Jam." He earned a master's degree in jazz studies from Howard University.
  • Chris Albert, (Chris/Pretty Boy): He has played trumpet for many years in the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Illinois Jaquet. A graduate of New England Conservatory, he has played in the small groups of jazz legends Jackie McClean, Billy Harper and Machito.
  • John Miller, (Coach): He is a former member of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and pianist for Stanley Turrentine for 17 years.
  • Mark Gross, (Mark/Icewater): He has had a versatile career in jazz, Broadway and film. A member of the original Broadway company of "Five Guys Named Moe," Gross was also in the original company of "Kate and the Kings" and has done "Sophisticated Ladies." He has also performed in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and with Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride and Muligrew Miller.
  • Eric Allen, (Eric): Allen has been the pulse behind one of the most successful groups in modern jazz, the Grammy Award-winning Wallace Roney Quintet. He has dropped heavy beats for many years with the Illinois Jaquet Big Band. He attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts with Gregory Charles Royal, Clarence Seay and Wallace Roney, Howard University with them and pianist Geri Allen and Berklee College of Music.
  • Clarence Seay, (Seay): Seay has been a bassist on many recordings and performances all over the world for top jazz artists including Wynton Marsalis and Wallace Roney, Lou Donaldson, Billy Harper, The Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

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