Obituary: James “Jaz” Dorsey
James “Jaz” Dorsey was born and raised in the "aristocracy" of Atlanta. His grandfather, Hugh Dorsey, was the prosecuting attorney, winning by questionable means a 1913 rape/murder case against Leo Frank. Frank was a young Jewish transplant from Brooklyn, New York, relocated to Atlanta to supervise the factory workers at the National Pencil Co. He was convicted in June 1915, and then ultimately hanged by a lynch mob a few months later. Hugh Dorsey was then elected to serve as Governor of the State from 1917 to 1921. Ironically, almost a century later his grandson Jaz helped stage a play in Franklin’s Boiler Room called Parade, which addressed the injustice leveled against Frank and his people.
Jaz was taught Latin by his great grandmother Dorsey. But in adolescence, Jaz discovered Jaz, and stepped out into the world as his own self. His own self, being what it was, was too much for the genteel southern family to endure, landing him in a reform school. But, not for long. His “incorrigibility” got him expelled. Jaz later believed that he was the only child in known history to be expelled from a reform school. Then, he was placed in the John Umstead Institution during his high school years. There he learned to smoke, joined the hippy folk scene, and surprisingly, excelled in music and academic study, winning a scholarship to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
There he majored in German, earning a second scholarship to the University of Goettingen, in then-West Germany, where he relished in the study of French and the French playwrights of the 17th century. He returned to New York for graduate school but dropped out and returned to Atlanta upon learning of his grandmother and his mother’s deteriorating health conditions.
While in Atlanta, he resided in his grandmother’s mansion, where he cared for his mother and grandmother prior to their passing. Never neglecting his theatrical passion, Jaz an all-black cast for a production of Romeo & Juliet. No reviews remain on that 1981 venture.
Now 27, Jaz was pinning continually for his New York life. That intense longing, birthed his very first song, “Manhattan Blues.” Song after song, musical after musical poured forth, five of which landed in Off Broadway productions, and one on Broadway at the Lambs Theatre. Jaz began to enjoy a sort of cult following as the young “playwright from Atlanta”. During this period of time (1980 – 1989) Jaz also pioneered the Dramaturgy Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
On his return to New York in 1990, he worked as a freelance dramaturge, actor, composer, more playwriting, and served as production manager in the offices of Biggs-Rosati Productions, and the National Theatre of Performing Arts on West 54th Street. He also launched a string of his own cabaret musicals and engaged with the Manhattan cabaret scene as an accompanist for the Chanteuse, Topaz. Having acquired a very fluent control of the languages, Jaz also received commissions to write pieces in French and Spanish.
In 1998 Jaz learned of a new production to open at the Lincoln Center and found it ironic that while his family disapproved of his theatrical comings goings, now his grandfather’s character was going to “sing, dance, and prosecute Leo Frank on a New York stage.” Parade’s run was limited to only 84 performances, but it won Tony Awards for best book, and best score, plus six Drama Desk Awards. Jaz’s passion for the show was unquenchable, and he would be instrumental in its Boiler Room production 14 years later.
September 11, 2001 was a watershed day for many living in New York, and while Jaz always maintained his contacts and associations in the city, and in Atlanta as well, he chose to relocated to Nashville.
got right to work in his new playground, establishing the Southern Writers Theater organization in 2002, and then organizing a new play reading series for the Metro Parks Theatre Department and contributing a Nashville Notes column to Nite Life Exchange. In 2007 he formed the African American Playwrights Exchange (AAPEX) and at its peak a few years ago the organization listed over 250 black playwrights and theatres featuring black artists across the U.S. In 2009, Jaz established the Foreign Language Acting Group.
In 2012, Dorsey worked with Michael Kerker to explore the possibilities of Nashville hosting an ASCAP sponsored theatrical workshop. In that same year Jaz established the Nashville Dramaturgy Project (NDP), and in 2013, he established the Singers Theatre of Nashville. Dorsey also sought to support women in the arts scene. He once explained, “Women get stuff done... I find a script with a strong leading lady, I find a strong actress, give her the reins, and get out of the way.
In 2014, Jaz took on what was to be his final theatrical project, the promotion of an expansive musical production about the life and times of River Boat Captain Tom Ryman, builder of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, known now as the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium. The show, Captain Tom, boasted a cast of 20 to 25 characters when thoroughly fleshed out, and around fifteen musical numbers.
Early readings went relatively well, but the talent and funding failed to materialize. In 2015 a second version of the story, The Ryman Diaries, using just the three main characters and set in an intimate format, was well received by audiences in several Nashville locations. However, by early 2016, Jaz’s health had begun to fail rapidly. He could not effectively continue with his projects. At 2:30 a.m., on Saturday, June 29, 2019, his theatre went dark.
Jaz contributed greatly to theatre, but mostly to the development of others, in Nashville and throughout the U.S. A memorial celebration (per Jaz’s instructions) will be held at the Dark Horse Theatre, 410 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville, from Noon to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday July 27, 2019. A potluck will follow whatever readings, stories, and music anyone wants to present in his honor. A;; are invited to bring whatever dish you wish. A-Go-Fund-Me page has also been established to help cover memorial and final expense costs.