ROME (Reuters Life!) - What’s a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn doing helping to raise money for a Catholic hospital owned by the Vatican in a city where until 1870 the papacy required Jews to live in a ghetto?
If that nice Jewish boy is Woody Allen, the conundrum is resolved by a four-letter word: Jazz.
“Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band” charmed a packed house in Rome’s Conciliazione Auditorium three blocks from the Vatican and just across the Tiber River from Rome’s synagogue.
The band, made up of Allen on clarinet and six other top-notch jazz musicians steeped in the New Orleans tradition, belted out more than a dozen tunes over nearly two hours at the benefit for the Bambino Gesu, Italy’s top children’s hospital.
“We love to play jazz music and we are always thrilled when anyone comes to hear us — thrilled and surprised, actually,” he told the audience in his trademark self-deprecating style.
That was it for one-liners, almost as if he wanted to step out of the shoes of Woody Allen the actor/director/comedian and into those of Woody Allen the musician.
“We are going to play songs from New Orleans from the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s — songs that were popular in the churches, parades, brothels and dance halls of New Orleans so sit back and we will do our best to entertain you,” he said.
And entertain they did, with numbers such as Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “Muskrat Ramble” by Kid Ory, “At The Jazz Band Ball,” “That’s A Plenty,” and “Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet.”
There was also a sublime and moving rendition of the spiritual “Take My Hand Precious Lord” — fittingly, perhaps, if one considers that the world’s largest church — St. Peter’s Basilica — was just down the street.
As a testimony to the band’s wide appeal, the capacity audience on Saturday night ranged in age from teenagers in torn jeans who arrived on scooters to elderly couples in elegant black whose limousines were double-parked outside.
Less better dressed was the band itself. While Allen wore his trademark casual style of pants and an open shirt, the rest of the band had to forego their usual dress jackets because their luggage had been lost in transit from Spain.
The audience, which included composer Nicola Piovani — who won the 1998 Oscar for best score for the film “Life is Beautiful” — did not notice or care about how the band was dressed. They howled for more and were rewarded with a long encore of three more songs that almost seemed like a second act.
The band further endeared itself to the local public by playing swinging New Orleans-style renditions of “Ariverderci Roma” and “Bella Ciao,” the World War Two anti-Fascist resistance ballad that is almost part of the national psyche.
Besides Allen, the concert offered exuberant, uplifting performances by Jerry Zigmont on trombone, Simon Wettenhall on trumpet, Conal Fowkes on piano, John Gill on drums, Greg Cohen on bass and musical director Eddy Davis on banjo.
“We play a new program every night so the experience is highly creative and spontaneous,” Zigmont told Reuters. “We love to come back to Rome and play. Every time we perform here, the people are warm and generous and that makes us play our best.”
When it is not touring, the band, which was the subject of the acclaimed 1998 documentary film “Wild Man Blues,” plays every Monday night at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.
For one spring night, Rome was the Carlyle on the Tiber.
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