RAndy Ross was a man of piercing, eloquent lyrics and memorable musical notes.
Playwright, essayist, novelist, educator, composer and jazz saxophonist, Ross died on October 31, leaving behind a grieving family and community.
Ross was a leader in school reform where he worked for over 20 years. In 2005, he became the first director of educational policy for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. He wrote the book “Government and the Private Sector: Who Should Do What?” in 1988 and has published educational essays and articles in the Los Angeles Times, Education Week, The School Administrator and the American School Board Journal.
Ben Guillory, who co-founded the Robey Theater Company with Danny Glover, remembered him as a beloved entertainer who won critical acclaim for his play “Birdland Blue” about Miles Davis and His Quintet. La Robey produced this piece in 2019.
“He joined our playwright’s lab,” Guillory said. “I started looking at his work and was impressed with his writing. I read his short stories and other plays, but ‘Birdland Blue’ really spoke to me and the Robey Theater Company. This matched our mission statement.
Its mission statement is to develop and produce plays about the global black experience and to reinvent black classics.
Other plays written by Ross include “92 Grove Street” about Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and “Essie’s Paul” about Mr. and Mrs. Paul Robeson. Shortly before his death, Ross composed a score to accompany “A Heated Discussion”, a new piece by Levy Lee Simon which will be produced by the Robey in April.
In addition to his role as playwright at Robey, Ross has served on their fundraising committee and served as musical director for many shows.
“He would find music or compose the music,” Guillory said. “He was an accomplished composer and a jazz musician. He was a pretty good Renaissance man. He was a very talented guy who I had a lot of respect and admiration for. He was very simple – an honest man. He had a sense of humor, but in the work he was very clear and unadorned. He thought before he spoke. »
“Birdland” was an original piece about Miles Davis and other musicians who made the era’s seminal jazz album. The play focused on a night at the club where they worked. Not a musical, it’s a play with music that celebrated notable jazz musicians.
“It was interesting for our audience and also very important because of what it was about,” Guillory said. “There is the whole cultural aspect that is part of the foundation of this country. Jazz music is truly one of the few, if not the only, original cultural aspects of this country.
Guillory said Ross was the perfect person to write the story because of both his talent with words and his talent with music. He said he had a great sense of structure and a sense of panache that makes a play theatrically interesting.
“Randy was very good at dialogue,” Guillory said. “He was very, very skilled with it, and that was his territory. He is himself a jazz musician. He played the alto saxophone, was a composer and was part of a quintet. My wife and I have been there often. They were classic jazz guys.
Ross has spent over 50 years playing the saxophone and was a member of the Blue Morning Quintet.
Ross and a colleague of his, Marion Newton, performed the music for the world premiere of “Birdland.” Guillory spoke of their dedication during the rehearsal process and how the two helped an actor who had never played an instrument learn to play the double bass.
“They (Ross and Newton) were consummate musicians, and it exemplified his commitment and seriousness to the job, his professionalism and his vision for the job,” Guillory said.
“This actor was 22 years old and had just come out of UCLA. He ended up playing bass on stage and more or less speaking-singing. It was just magical that an actor who is not a musician become a musician during this rehearsal process. It gave authenticity to the work.
Guillory said Ross was an inspiration to all the actors and artists involved with the show.
“All artists are committed and have a vision, but the strength, the genesis of this project in this case, Randy Ross, who wrote it and was actually a musician himself – boy, we couldn’t help to be immersed in the words,” Guillory said.
Ross is also a fiction writer, author of a collection of short stories, “The Chocolate Man” and a novel, “When Are They Coming?”
Guillory hopes to produce more of his pieces, but they don’t know when yet. He said Ross will be missed on a personal, organizational and community level.
“He and I were friends and colleagues,” Guillory said. “He was a creative force for the community and the Robey Theatre. The Blue Morning Quintet played all over Los Angeles. He was a musical force in the community and a literary and dramatic force for the theater community. He was an important contributor to culture, the Robey Theater Company, theater and music.