In early ’02 I had the chance to see, here in Tulsa, Warren Leight’s excellent play, Side Man (1998), whose themes include 1) the decline of jazz performance as a profession, and 2) when the stable household is naught but a ghost.
Trumpet player Gene moves in with and, after getting her pregnant, marries naive, sensitive, foul-mouthed Terry, but can only handle the horn not the marriage. This is all recalled in memory-play form by the couple’s 29-year-old son Clifford, bruised and surviving, and still loving his parents. Like his much featured bandmates, Gene cannot cope with ordinary social life: As playwright Leight points out, he “exists in sort of a bubble. When the conversation isn’t about music, he’s elsewhere; even if he’s talking to you.” Perennially the side man is on the side.
As for Terry, she gradually becomes a lost boozer and shrew (“I’ve been dead for thirty years”), an inconsolable wreck. Half out of her mind, she whines at one point about wanting to join a convent in Montana or Minnesota, which is interesting. Surely she sees a convent as an inviting antithesis to all she has known, as a place of order and wholeness.
Side Man isn’t chary about showing us the lesions of life. The side men-musicians besides Gene have them too: Jonesy is a drug addict who gets three of his teeth broken, Al suffers a mini-stroke. The good times inevitably pass in this spiky, honest, and nicely structured play which I was fortunate to see in a successful production.