By Edward Kliszus
Lights raised to reveal David Jackson at 54 Below. He was waiting in the audience by the bar. Jackson then set the evening’s smooth tone of romance and nostalgia with the song “Take Me Where You Want to Go.” This song was brought to the forefront by 80’s singer of Manhattan Transfer fame Gerald Alston.
Each keenly personal anecdote was to segue into music that defined moments of his life, just as his storytelling characterized segments of Broadway history. As Jackson unfolded each memory, a projection visually listed each event in an ever-growing collage.
Where the Story Began
The story began in Philadelphia as Jackson reflected on his 50-year-plus career. He then reminisced about his school days and presence at a Beatles concert. He chuckled about an era when one ordered concert tickets by mail and provided a Self-Addressed-Stamped Envelope for which to receive them by return mail. This led to a Beatles medley of “Hey Jude,” “I Will”, “Get Back”, “In My Life,” and “Oh, Darling.”
Jackson’s mom had introduced him to the Righteous Brothers’ song “Ebb Tide,” a notable departure from the Beatles’ pop-rock genre and a step toward broadening his musical tastes. Consequently, he developed an interest ranging from classical music to show tunes. He then noted a defining meeting with Duke Ellington and his performance with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. This segued into his delivery of a series of selections Ellington frequently performed. We were treated to the songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Satin Doll”, Bob Russell’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me,” Mack David’s “I’m Just Lucky So and So” and Ellington’s “I Love you Madly.”
Mama, A Rainbow
Jackson was close with his mother and spoke of her final moments when she could longer speak. She then pointed to an alphabet chart to spell her last words to him, “I love you.” In tribute, Jackson sang “Mama, A Rainbow” from the Marx Brothers’ musical Minnie’s Boys, written by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady.
Next was a vivid reflection by David Jackson at 54 Below on beloved actress Sandy Duncan, whom he met at an event years ago. Jackson recalled the dress Duncan wore that evening while the orchestra was playing Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Looked Tonight.” He walked into the audience as he sang and led Duncan by hand onto the stage to dance with him. As pianist Michael Lavine continued to sing the song and accompany on the piano, we relished a tender, romantic surprise.
Jackson spoke of his early days in New York and his 1978 arrival, paying only $85 monthly rent. He described his sojourns to Sardi’s to hopefully network with stage impresarios. Jackson noted a discouraging early audition session at which stage manager Ruth Mitchell tapped his shoulder, indicating he missed the cut. He was back to Sardi’s and finally landed a successful audition as an understudy in Eubie, the Eubie Blake tribute musical.
In Eubie, he stepped in for Lonnie McNeal, only to bump into a pole on stage that drew blood and resulted in him being rushed to St. Clare’s Hospital on West 51st Street — a fateful first Broadway performance indeed.
We heard about Jackson’s times with Tommy Tune, Peter Sellers, Kenny Rodgers, Gregory Hines, and his work in George Gershwin’s musical My One and Only. How wonderful too see David Jackson at 54 Below!
Jackson’s former stage partner David White joined him and Lavine for Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Be Bothered Now.” White spoke about his last-minute call to perform in Luther Davis’ Grand Hotel with just a few hours to prepare. That was when White and Jackson first met and performed together. They reprised “Maybe My Baby Loves Me” by George Forrest and Robert Right from Grand Hotel. As expected, this drew enthusiastic audience applause.
Jackson left the stage to White, who had joined the national tour of Grand Hotel and was known as the “guy who saved the show.” Likewise a buoyant, charming individual, White performed Louis Jordan’s Don’t Get Messy Bessy and Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Truly Blessed and Duly Grateful
Jackson returned to reminisce about his loving 92-year-old dad before extending thanks to those who had helped make tonight’s event possible. He posed a closing game question. “What are the best and the worst things that happened today?” He then responded, “The best is being here at 54 Below! There was no worst.” Jackson sang Art Garfunkel’s “Grateful,” which closes with the words “Grateful, grateful, Truly grateful I am, Grateful, grateful, Truly blessed, And duly grateful.” This verse summed up the talented, humble, kind, gentle David Jackson, who ably connected music to times in his life tonight. Jackson’s performance was universally nostalgic and honest, with music from the heart.
It was time for a humble bow, hearty applause, and an encore, “In Honeysuckle Time,” written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
For David Jackson
Written and performed by David Jackson at 54 Below
Special guest David White
Directed and Produced by Robert W. Schneider
Musical Director and pianist Michael Lavine
Special Thanks to my dresser and longtime friend, John Robelen, vocal coach Kristen Blodgette, Ms. Sandy Duncan (I have loved you for so long, dear lady), my physical trainer Keith Crowningshield, and husband, Peter von Mayrhauser
“Rounding every bending, to the river’s ending, I will always be near.”
For 54 Below
Livestream director Becky Morris
Creative & Programming Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Lighting Director KJ Hardy
Sound Supervisor Kris Umezawa
Executive producers Steve Baruch, Richard Frankel, and Tom Viertel
254 W 54th St. Cellar, NYC 10019
Tickets & Info: (646) 476-3551