The Rev. Shawn Amos curates Blackbox, a showcase of classic jazz, blues and American roots
By Bliss Bowen
Legendary speakeasies and mid-20th-century gathering places such as the Cotton Club and the Copacabana will inspire the vibe and to some extent the sound of the Blackbox, a monthly series kicking off Saturday at The Broad Stage. It’s curated by the Rev. Shawn Amos, who will also perform Friday, accompanied by a new six-piece band. Comparing an oft-performed musical set to a theatrical play, in that “you really understand where the beats are,” he says he’s pushing beyond his usual “joyous blues” style for the Blackbox show.
Amos plans to pull out at least one song from his 2005 album “Thank You Shirl-ee May,” a tribute to his mother, a 1960s nightclub singer; producer Anthony Marinelli will play piano in the band, alongside longtime guitarist Chris “Doctor” Roberts. The other players are new, as are veteran background singers Charlotte Gibson and Amy Keys.
“That’s a thrill for me, and that’s not usually part of my show,” Amos says of Gibson’s and Keys’ presence. “The space and the nature of the series sort of dictated that we do something [different], so I decided to not use my touring band. It will be my first time playing my catalogue with straight-up jazz players. I’m hoping between the song list and the fact that there’s a bunch of jazz players with me that my shows will be transformed a little and cover more ground than a regular Shawn Amos show.”
Amos, who genially (and accurately) jokes that he is “pretty chatty,” will emcee all the shows like a sharp-dressed party host, setting the tone of the evening with stories and a sense of occasion. He promises a bit of “set dressing” will help give the space more of a cabaret feel. Artists scheduled to appear on the Blackbox stage in coming months include Keys, backed by Amos’ band (Dec. 7); silky-toned jazz stylist Sandra Booker singing Sarah Vaughan (Oct. 5); veteran R&B singer Billy Valentine (Nov. 2); Amos’ band in a Harlem Renaissance tribute (Feb. 1); L.A.-based New Orleans-style octet Mudbug Brass Band (March 1); the Jennifer Keith Quintet (April 5); and Gabrielito (May 3).
Amos’ criterion when selecting artists was straightforward: He chose artists he believes are underrepresented, and whose music would fit a celebration of jazz, blues and American roots music.
“Whenever you get asked to curate, as a curator you’re excited to introduce folks to people you dig that you think should have a bigger platform,” he says. “And there are a number of subgenres within American roots music that get short shrift.”
There’s a decidedly retro, cocktail-show quality to the sound and the presentation of several of Amos’ choices. Valentine, for instance, pairs swoony soul and falsetto notes with sartorial suavity. Keith has developed a specialized niche with pop and jazz standards from what she calls the “Golden Age of American music” — i.e., the 1940s and ’50s — usually attired in immaculately curled hairdos to match her creamy vocal tones and fit-and-flare period dresses. They’re walking embodiments of an old-school credo that dictates that when you perform onstage, you wear a fine dress, or a handsome suit — not to make a style statement like uniformed fashionistas, but to show respect for your audience. It also enhances the sense that professionals are in charge of the microphone.
Never underestimate the power of a well-tailored suit, Amos wisecracks. He’s more than a little serious.
“Performing a show like this in a theater versus a club or festival or a traditional music hall has definitely had me think differently about the music I like to play, and the show I like to put on, and the way I want to put the show forth to people,” he says thoughtfully.
“Everyone’s just a really fabulous entertainer. It’s sort of the difference between people who sing songs really well and play songs really well, and people who do that and at the same time are also entertainers. Billy and Sandra and Jennifer — and myself, to some degree — we’re all people who appreciate the value of entertaining an audience, and feel that that’s part of the job. A lot of artists in a lot of genres — and I’m not disparaging anyone, because I like a lot of it — think just sort of playing the song is enough. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve gotten really used to confusing spectacle, big set pieces and choreography, with entertainment.
“The idea of someone being able to command an audience with [laughs] just a well-tailored suit and a microphone is not a lost art, I hope. But it is an art worthy of putting in front of people amidst all the spectacle.”
Blackbox with the Rev. Shawn Amos launches at 8 p.m. Friday (Sept. 7) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $40. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit shawnamos.com or thebroadstage.org.