Riffing on a creature feature

Jazz Passengers will provide live soundtrack for "Creature from the Black Lagoon" at Mass MoCA on Saturday night

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., July 30, 2003) – Since even before Roy Nathanson and Curtis Fowlkes founded the Jazz Passengers, the two – who met in the pit band of the Big Apple Circus -- have combined their sense of comic theater and jazz chops in vaudeville-style entertainments.

The latest product of their imaginative riffing is a version of the 3-D horror film and camp classic, “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” in which the Passengers supply all the sound, dialogue and music, as they will do on Saturday night as part of Mass MoCA’s Silent Film/Live Music series at 8:30 in the Cinema Courtyard. In case of rain, the performance will be moved to the Hunter Center indoors.

“We had done things that were like radio plays early on where E.J. [Rodriguez], the drummer, was supposed to be smoking a joint driving a car and telling me about a Santeria meeting,” said Nathanson in a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment.

“We did a lot of these little small skits in the music, and also did a lot of theater stuff, like ‘The Jazz Passengers in Egypt,’ where we were supposed to be slaves to the Pharaoh,” said Nathanson, a saxophonist, composer, and sometime actor. “That one had a lot of Joseph Campbell jokes.”

The Passengers originally emerged out of the downtown jazz group the Lounge Lizards. “I started a band with Curtis, and it was about the fact that I was the short, Jewish guy and he was the tall, black guy, and we both were from Brooklyn,” said Nathanson, who also leads his own quartet and has an ongoing duo with keyboardist Anthony Coleman. “We had these complicated compositions, and we wanted to be more about acoustic stuff and complicated jazz and harmony, more than the Lizards, but also funny and goofy.”

Over time, the Nathanson/Fowlkes duo added members until it was clear that a larger ensemble had coalesced, at which time they took the moniker Jazz Passengers, an obvious tip of the hat with tongue in cheek to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Other members include violinist Sam Bartfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware, guitarist Eileen Weiss and bassist Brad Jones. Tomorrow’s performance will be conducted by Norman Yamata. Vocalist Debbie Harry, best known as the lead singer of Blondie, is also an occasional member of the group, which has also performed and recorded with Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples.

For the current project, the group transcribed the entire script and score of the film. Each musician plays a character, and the group re-recorded the dialogue, some of it from the original script, but also some made up a la “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” in which Woody Allen re-scripted a pre-existing Japanese spy film.

“The whole thing in a sense is a jazz piece,” said Nathanson. “There’s the material that’s already there, a lot of the original material that’s in the score, and we play with that too. But there’s also a lot of room to improvise. A lot of the cues are so complex that we threw them away and we improvise. There’s a lot of music. There are all these underwater scenes with minutes of music, with plenty of time to improvise.

“Once we’ve established the musical language of the film it’s easier to go off on it. So in its totality, it’s like we’re doing a shadow version of it.”

Nathanson said that the original score is the forerunner of the great horror film scores. “It’s not even credited on the original film,” he said. “It had all these great guys working on it, including Henry Mancini and others, and it was patched together as a score.”

As for the film itself, “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” released in 1954, has been immensely influential on subsequent films ranging from Saturday night monster movies to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” which borrows extensively from the movie’s sophisticated underwater footage.

The film’s three-dimensional technology was cutting-edge for its time (3-D glasses will be provided to Mass MoCA viewers). The creature, Gill-Man, wore some of the best hand-crafted masks of the 1950s and was played on land by powerful stuntman Ben Chapman. Underwater champion swimmer Riccou Browning gave the creature itself extraordinary grace without benefit of scuba gear.

In the film, directed by Jack Arnold (“It Came From Outer Space,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man”), a research team digging in the Amazon comes across the fossilized hand of a human fish creature. That night, the creature emerges from the swamp to kill. When the hand makes it back to an oceanographic institute, conscientious scientist David (Richard Carlson), greedy scientist Mark (Richard Cunha), and the beautiful girl they fight over, Kay (Julia Adams), head up the Amazon to find more fossils. Instead they run into the real thing, and terror begins. While Mark and David fight over what to do next, the creature falls in love with Kay, and makes plans of his own.

For tickets call 413-662-2111.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 1, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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