Kent Gash directs ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ in Pasadena

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer 

PASADENA — The first time Kent Gash saw the iconic musical “Jelly’s Last Jam” was an original run on Broadway in 1992, starring the legendary Gregory Hines.

The show was directed by George Wolfe, and choreographed by Hope Clarke, with tap choreography by Hines.

“I saw it three or four times,” said Gash, a veteran theater director with impressive and extensive credits. “It was unlike any Broadway musical I had ever seen. It was a Black playwright, writing about Black life, exploring issues and culture and life and jazz in a way that no Broadway show has done. It’s Black culture, warts and all. Gregory was fearless. Gregory was so much a one-of-a-kind talent.”

Fast forward 32 years and Gash, an unabashed cheerleader of theater, is directing another incarnation of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” set to open at the Pasadena Playhouse June 2.

“Jelly’s Last Jam,” tells the story of the legendary jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, who claims to have been the architect of jazz.

The recipient of three Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, and three 1992 Outer Critics Circle Awards including Best Broadway Musical, “Jelly’s Last Jam” takes a deep dive into Black identity in music, the invention of a beloved musical genre and an artist’s powerful path towards self-discovery.

As one of the primary forces behind the creation of one of the most influential musical genres, Jelly Roll Morton permanently changed music and his influence can be seen in today’s musical landscape.

The show has audiences follow Jelly from the back alleys of New Orleans to the sparkling stages of New York, as his journey unfolded in a display of song, tap dancing and music.

On a recent grayish afternoon in May, Gash has just finished a rehearsal. It’s been a long day but the seasoned professional doesn’t mind taking time out to talk about his latest project.

“We’ve been hitting hard in there,” said Gash, founding director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Drama’s New Studio on Broadway. “The show is one we all love. It’s a big show. 

“Every day we have a lot to do and a lot to go after. It’s an epic show. It’s ambitious in terms of its scope, scale and the story it’s trying to tell. We have an exceptional cast of actors, singers and dancers. Everyone is working hard to get to something special.”

This isn’t Gash’s first production of the iconic musical. He did a production at the Alliance Theater 20 years ago. It was one of the first productions produced after the Broadway production and the national tour.

“This is my second production without Gregory (Hines),” Gash said. “We all believe in how powerful the piece is. The music is amazing. The entertainment value is….. The joy, the grit. The grit to go with the gravy.

“There are a lot of very funny things,” he added. “It’s funny because it’s true. But the reality is, Jelly Roll wasn’t always a likable guy. Casting Gregory (Hines), he fools you. Jelly was a real raconteur, a charmer, seductive and convincing about what he’s saying. Gregory was the same way. This is a wonderful piece to rehearse every day.”

Gash has nothing but praise for everyone involved in the production.

“This cast is extraordinary,” he said. “Each of them is so individually flavorful. They are so distinctive. They are some exciting actors. I’ve worked with some and have had a ball getting to know the others.

“I’m blessed to work with phenomenal actors. The versatility this company carries. This company is so skilled and powerful – it’s one of the strongest I’ve dealt with. We have some secret weapons in this production. People are going to be bowled over by this company,” he added.

The rehearsal process is something Gash enjoys the most.

“I love rehearsal even more than the performance,” he said. “You feel like you’re a part of a big thing when you do theater. You are giving a gift or throwing a party every night. I’ve lived a blessed and extraordinary life — made more extraordinary every time I go into rehearsal.”

Gash relishes putting his stamp on the classic musical.

“I believe that you shouldn’t direct anything you don’t feel passionate about,” said Gash, who has directed “Radio Golf,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Topdog/Underdog,” “Nine,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Godspell,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Will Power’s The Seven,” “Assassins,” “Crowns,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Who’s Tommy,” and more. 

“I feel passionate about this story and the play,” he added. “I would like for the Gash mark to be almost invisible and for people to just connect to the characters and be thrilled and surprised. A play should give you some sense of witnessing something that can only be done in a theater and you don’t know how they pulled it off. You should feel like you’ve been told a story.”

Gash, who jumped at the chance to direct the show, considers it “The single most important and truthful look at Black life to be put into the musical theater world.”   

“It is unapologetic about some of the difficult aspects of Black life,” said Gash, a graduate of the Carnegie-Mellon University School of Drama with a bachelor of fine arts in acting, and the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television with a master of fine arts degree in directing for the theatre and television.

“The differences between Creoles and free people of color versus darker skinned, first-generation Africa born. All that is in the play. The challenges and the schism of it all. George (C. Wolfe) doesn’t shy away from that. He allows us to be human like we are.”

One of the things Gash likes about the show is how it deals with some painful truths.

“There are things that are painful,” said Gash, who was an actor for 20 years. “There are painful things said and some ugly things done but it’s grounded in some truthful, lived experiences. It’s asking Jelly and the audience to think about — well what is your relationship to who you are and where you come from? 

“You can’t ignore it. Not to say there is a monolithic way to be Black. The show isn’t saying that. It’s a lot. It’s compelling. We know part of the power of Black culture is we have made style, music and art out of almost nothing in this country. The slave trade told us we were less than human. We knew innately that we were so much more powerful and had more to offer each other and more to give.”

Gash, who grew up in Colorado, has been interested in theater since childhood. He started singing lessons and playing piano at the age of 8.

“My parents were jazz fanatics,” he said. “They told me and my siblings that we could do what we wanted as long as our grades didn’t go down. They told us to always do something we love. It proved to be great advice. We grew up thinking anything was possible.”

Gash, directing at the Pasadena Playhouse for the first time, feels he has done a successful job if,  “Everyone leaves satisfied and full.” 

“I want the flavors to linger with you,” he said. “What I want most is to make a great production of George C. Wolfe’s and Susan Birkenhead’s masterwork. I want to do right by them and Jelly.”

“Jelly’s Last Jam,” directed by Gash, stars John Clarence Stewart as Jelly Roll Morton, Cress Williams as Chimney Man, Jasmine Amy Rogers as Anita, Karole Foreman, Eric B. Anthony, Chante Carmel, Doran Butler, Summer Nicole Greer, Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill, Janaya Jones, Grasan Kingsberry, Amber Liekhus, Davon Rashawn, Joe Aaron Reid, Naomi C. Walley and Hannah Yosef.

Music direction by Darryl Archibald, choreographed by Dell Howlett, book by George C. Wolfe, music by Jelly Roll Morton, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, musical adaptation and additional music composed by Luther Henderson.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at

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