Leslye Headland, author of Assistance, spoke with Wilma Theater Literary/Artistic Assistant William Steinberger on Tuesday morning, October 23rd in a cab on her way to a rehearsal.
William Steinberger: What are you in rehearsal for?
Leslye Headland: I’m rehearsing a ten minute play that a friend of mine wrote, a younger playwright that I am in love with – creatively, not romantically. She got into the Sam French Off-Off-Broadway Festival, which is this week, so we’re just sort of in our last throes of trying to get everything to work and all of that – but it’s great. It’s really nice to be directing again, and it’s nice to be directing something that’s not mine, which is really always informative and cool.
Will: You’re a former assistant to producer Harvey Weinstein and I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your decision to leave your day job and focus on your writing.
Headland: I had been working at Miramax and the Weinstein Company for almost five years. I only worked for Harvey for the last year of that. I didn’t leave because of him, but because I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I had been stuck in an entry-level job for a really long time. And I noticed that a lot of people my age were in a similar situation. They weren’t being mentored, it was just sort of doing people’s dirty work for them, and I thought, why do we keep doing this? Why are we still in this position? And when I worked for Harvey directly, I actually did get somebody who was definitely challenging to work for, but somebody who actually encouraged me. He said, ‘Aren’t you a writer? Why are you still here?’ And he actually read through some of my work and really challenged me to leave in a lot of ways, and say, ‘You know, you could stay and become a producer, and I can teach you how to do that, but you’re a good writer, and if you want to be a writer, you have to go and do it – you have to actually write. You can’t hang out at my desk and write in secret.’ So that’s what the experience of working there and then leaving was like.
Will: You moved from New York to LA in order to get your plays produced, which at first might seem almost counter-intuitive. What about LA helped you blossom as an artist?
“I don’t get involved in politics,” Louis Armstrong once said. “I just blow my horn.” One evening in 1957, however, he decided to speak up, and his remarks may have had large consequences.
On September 17, 1957, Armstrong was scheduled to play a concert in Grand Forks, North Dakota with his All Star Band. A young reporter, Larry Lubenow, had been assigned to get an interview with Armstrong for the local paper, the Grand Forks Herald. Unfortunately, Lubenow could not schedule an interview with Armstrong before the concert, so he decided to get crafty and posed as a bell captain at Armstrong’s hotel. After Lubenow revealed his subterfuge to Armstrong, the trumpeter agreed to an interview. Two weeks earlier, the Little Rock Nine, nine African-American teenagers, had being barred from entering Little Rock’s Central High School. Lubenow boldy asked Armstrong’s opinion on the matter. President Eisenhower was “two faced,” Armstrong said, adding “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also had some choice words for Governor Faubus of Arkansas who had resisted orders for desegregation of schools.
During the early days of Louis Armstrong’s career, he became known for pushing his horn-playing skills to the limit by playing multiple high notes in a row. He incorporated this routine into his performances of the song “Shine”, hitting about forty high Cs in a row and ending on a high F. He finally got a chance to record this talent in 1936 on the song “Swing that Music”. Armstrong collaborated with Horace Gerlach, a pianist and songwriter, on this particular recording as well as his autobiography of the same name. Gerlach is credited as an “editor” of the book’s final section which features several transcriptions of jazz solos. As exciting as Armstrong’s high notes were, the act eventually took a toll on Armstrong’s lips and Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, encouraged him to back off the high notes in order to save his lips and his career.
LISTEN TO 'SWING THAT MUSIC'
Jimmy Dorsey & His Orch., voc. & trumpet Louis Armstrong - Swing That Music, Decca 1936
The mafia helped change the face of American music by giving jazz artists a place to practice their craft at mob-run nightclubs and restaurants. Many of the brothels of Storyville in New Orleans where Louis Armstrong got his start in music were run by Sicillian mobsters. Henry Matranga, one of the most powerful mobsters at the time, owned the tavern where Armstrong played his first gig in 1917. Mafia connections helped keep these clubs and brothels open and protected from police raids in the early days.
When jazz musicians migrated from the south to cities like Chicago and New York, mafia-run clubs were there to welcome them. These clubs gave jazz musicians the exposure they needed to make jazz music a national phenomenon by giving them a stage to play on and good wages. This caused some trouble for jazz musicians as they became more popular, though.
Armstrong found himself in the middle of a feud between two managers, Tommy Rockwell and Johnny Collins, who fought over control of Armstrong’s career. Rockwell, Armstrong’s former manager decided to use force to get his prized client back, going so far as to send feared gangsters such as Dutch Schultz and Frankie Foster to visit Armstrong and bring him back to New York. The gangsters didn’t stop following Armstrong around until he decided to bring in Joe Glaser, who was notoriously connected to Al Capone, on as his manager. Despite Glaser’s dangerous past, the two remained partners until Glaser’s death in 1969.
As Louis Armstrong became a household name the world over in the decades following World War II, a new generation of jazz musicians started to create their own style of playing. One of the most renowned musicians to come out of this generation was Miles Davis, who would continue to test the limits of the jazz genre throughout his four decade long career.
Born in Alton, Illinois in 1926, Davis started studying the trumpet after a neighbor gave him an old horn when he was ten. He took private lessons and played in his junior high and high school bands and eventually got a job playing in Eddie Randell’s Blue Devils’ band when he was 17. He continued his musical education at Julliard while getting an education in the New York jazz scene from musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. After a year at Julliard he decided that the school was not for him and devoted all of his energy to a career in jazz. He developed his own distinct voice among the other bebop musicians of the time, characterized by a lyrical tone and spaces of silence between notes. In 1948, Davis teamed up with composer Gil Evans to record Birth of the Cool, which ushered in the new era of cool jazz.