Director Woody Allen riffs on jazz for his first visit to Minneapolis for State Theatre show
Allan Stewart Konigsberg’s dreams of artistic glory didn’t pan out the way he expected. As a teenager in 1950s Brooklyn, he was bitten by the music bug, lingering beside the record player in his bedroom as it played vibrant New Orleans jazz. It became, he said, “an obsession.” Determined to be a professional musician, he persuaded the clarinet accompanist for bandstand great Fats Waller to teach him private lessons for $2 an hour.
Konigsberg never reached Tin Pan Alley.
Changing his name to Woody Allen, he passed his time by writing, directing and starring in amusing movies roughly once a year for half a century. But he never lost his lifelong hope to entertain audiences through live music. Which is why he’s performing next month with the six-man New Orleans Jazz Band on a cross-country swing. They will launch the multistate tour at the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Sunday, Aug. 2.
Allen and his ensemble have never played Minnesota before, much less visited it. Talking by phone from New York, Allen explained why, after decades of international and stateside jazz performances, he decided to become a first-time visitor.
“I’ve never been to Minnesota, you know. I read about it all the time. I like it. I’ve always liked its politics,” Allen said. “I would like to spend a day there and see the town. I’ve always had a very positive feeling about it. Everybody in the band agreed that Minnesota would be a nice place to play, so we took the date.”
Sightseeing is an important part of life on tour, he said.
“I always travel with my family. We do enjoy being on the road because we get to go and see places like Minnesota, San Francisco, Paris. We pick places that we think we’ll enjoy. You know, that’s not our primary job. We do it for fun,” he said in a tone far from the neurotic whine he often uses on-screen.
“We normally tour Europe, but in this case I have some filming in California,” he added. Allen, who has directed an astonishing 45 films, will begin shooting his next in Los Angeles this August, with a cast including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively and Bruce Willis. “So it felt good to do a few dates en route to California — and Minnesota sounded like one that would be fun to do.”
Allen has played the clarinet publicly almost weekly in New York for decades, performed on half a dozen movie soundtracks, and drawn crowds of 8,000 at the Roman ruins in his European jazz tours. Still, he hopes people will understand that his film work is the focus of his creative life.
“I’m a terrible musician,” he said. “I don’t say this out of any false modesty. I never learned to read music or play correctly. I’m strictly an amateur New Orleans jazz fan.”
In the early 1970s he began appearing onstage in Monday night jam sessions with other nonprofessionals as the New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra. “We were all dedicated fanatics to the tradition. We started playing in a small restaurant in New York,” drawing a hundred jostling fans to the tiny bar at Michael’s Pub, then moving up to the hallowed Manhattan institution, the Carlyle Hotel.
“If I was not known for being in movies, nobody would come to see me,” he said. “Someone suggested, ‘Why don’t we see what it’s like to tour the band’ and we ended up playing to many, many people in the houses all over Rome and Spain and Belgium and Switzerland and Japan. It kind of snowballed. But it’s strictly an amateur thing for me.’
Allen’s love for New Orleans jazz — a simple, blunt, antique style — gives his devotees a refresher course in vintage swing. It’s something of a master class. “I’m at least cerebrally an expert at that music. I know all the recordings, all the musicians, I can identify them all blindfolded. I learned everything by listening to the music constantly my entire life.
“It’s a very limited taste,” he said. “If you went around the country, one in 5 million people would say, ‘Oh, I know what New Orleans music is.’ It’s like if we had a group that sang Gregorian chants or something. It’s a limited hobby and if you’re not interested in it, it’s the most boring thing in the world.”
He pursues it, he said, “without any attempt to make it a commercial enterprise whatsoever.”
And yet, the band has drawn crowds globally. It plays a massive repertoire of some 1,200 diverse blues, marches, hymns and spiritual tunes. There is no set list. Allen, in collaboration with band director Eddy Davis, calls out whatever song he thinks should go next. “We decide what comes next on the spur of the moment.
“The other guys in the band are great because they’re real musicians,” he said. “They read and they make a living playing music. I’m a tolerated amateur. I’m sure behind my back they roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, we’ve got to have him in the band ’cause he’s the movie name.’ So it’s strictly a hobby that took on a life of its own.”
No laughing matter
Allen said his pastime does prove that doing something not for money but just for the love of the craft “turns out to be very rewarding in many ways.” Rewarding with audience communication, sometimes with an Allen-led audience singalong to the band’s rakish syncopation.
A stand-up comedian from 1960 to 1968, Allen finds performing music vastly better.
“It’s much easier. You’re hiding behind the music, up there communicating with six other guys. Stand-up comedy is brutally hard. You’re alone, you’re talking to the audience directly and you’ve got to get laughs one after the other for an hour onstage.
“With the band, if the acoustics are good, you hear the music back as we play it. You can solo if you want, you can hide behind the other musicians if you want, and after a while we go, hopefully before we have exhausted the patience of the audience.”