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The life of Pittsburgh-born jazz drummer Joe Harris gets a workout in Kuntu Repertory's Clean Drums.

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This year's stage production featuring the most jazz is likely to be Clean Drums. It's Kuntu Repertory Theatre's revival of the Rob Penny play about legendary Pittsburgh-born drummer Joe Harris, focusing on his argument with younger musicians who espouse a free-form style.

Harris, born and raised in Manchester, was involved in some musical innovations himself. As a young man -- he's now in his 80s -- he moved in 1946 to New York City, where he played with Dizzy Gillespie, helped pioneer Latin jazz, and anchored the house band at the famed Apollo Theater. In the late '50s, he lived and worked in Sweden, eventually returning to the States for TV work in Los Angeles, among other things. He later studied music in the Far East, Egypt, Africa and Latin America.

The late Penny, a Kuntu co-founder and the group's playwright-in-residence, wrote his "autobio-biographical jazz bop play" in the early '90s, after Harris had returned to Pittsburgh. Clean Drums finds Harris -- who portrayed himself in the play's first and only production -- representing the bop-and-earlier traditions of Armstrong, Gillespie and Parker, even as "young lions" embrace a new style.

The play opens with Harris (played by Dennis Garner) delivering his musical talk and demonstration "The Drummer Man," in which he leads listeners through the range of percussion rhythms. Much of the show's dialogue, in fact, is based on direct quotes from Harris himself. "Joe's philosophy is, you gotta learn the tune first," says the show's director, Kuntu artistic director Vernell Lillie. "You learn the tune, then you begin to improvise."

Clean Drums plays out in staged rehearsals, concerts and recording sessions as Harris (who's a consultant on the show) might have lived them. Garner (the nephew of jazz great and one-time Harris colleague Erroll Garner) plays in the production's live band, which also features local trumpeter Ed Skirtich and visiting trumpeter Herb Newsome. Vocalists Stephanie Akers, Zuliakha Jones, Justine Patrick and Terri Smith stand in for such legendary vocalists as Holiday, Vaughn, Horne and Washington.

The show's Sun., Jan. 25, matinee will be followed by a Clean Drums Jam Session; musicians are encouraged to pre-register with Kuntu.

 

Kuntu Repertory Theatre presents Clean Drums Thu., Jan. 22-Feb. 7. Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave. (seventh floor), University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. Previews: $10-15 ($1 Pitt students); regular performances $13-20 ($5 Pitt students). 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org/clean_drums.php.

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