The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has built an excellent reputation as a place to see thought-provoking theater since it was founded in 2008.
But this summer, as CV Rep takes its annual seasonal break from plays, founder and artistic director Ron Celona decided to try something new: a summer jazz series, in association with world-class bassist Bill Saitta.
It all began when Saitta was hired as part of the band for CV Rep’s production of A Class Act early this year. (Ron first met Saitta through a common friend, Yve Evans, herself an amazing local jazz musician.) One day during rehearsals, as the story goes, Saitta suggested a summer jazz series.
Celona had already incorporated cabaret shows into the theater’s summer offerings, but CV Rep was looking for a way to increase revenues to cover rent for recently acquired additional space.
Thus, the Summer Jazz Series was born.
The two men hammered out the details during several brainstorming lunches. The concept was inspired by Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum Theatre, which is curated by local musician and longtime radio personality Jimi “Fitz” Fitzgerald. This prompted Celona to tell Saitta: “I want you to be my Fitz!”
Celona said his appreciation of jazz—one of his favorite singers is Dinah Washington—began as a child. His father played the tenor saxophone, but gave it up to get a “regular” job to support his family. Celona himself—a talented singer, actor, dancer and director—studied piano briefly as a child.
“It didn’t stick,” he said.
Saitta began playing piano at the age of 7 and added the Fender bass at age 14. He studied bass and guitar with Carol Kaye and earned a degree in instrumental performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the season, Saitta is featured every Tuesday night at Backstreet Bistro in Palm Desert, jamming with great talents like Yve Evans, Doug MacDonald and Deanna Bogart. He’s also the staff bassist for the Jazz in the Pines Festival in Idyllwild every August.
Saitta will be featured on bass throughout the jazz series, with Tim Pleasant on drums. Saitta compared the process of collaboration between singers and musicians to the collaboration within an a capella group.
“Everybody’s pitching in and contributing to the harmonic sound,” Saitta said. “The conversation should reach out into the audience, yet I’m always striving for intimacy.”
Celona said he has “absolutely” achieved the goals he set for himself when he founded CV Rep back in 2008. He predicts that by this coming October, the theater’s season-ticket subscriber base will reach 1,400. CV Rep is also the only Equity theater in the valley.
Next season’s CV Rep lineup will feature guest directors, larger casts and extended runs—each show will be performed for a full four weeks.
As for rumors that CV Rep is moving to a new location, Celona would only confirm that the theater will definitely be in its current location, inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, during the upcoming season. (Watch for a mid-summer news release regarding the theater’s future.)
What makes CV Rep different from other live theaters in the valley?
“I try to choose plays that will challenge the audience—educational, thought-provoking fare that is not being offered elsewhere locally,” Celona said. His goal is to tap the passions of audience members, and perhaps have them look at the play’s subject matter from a different angle.
Both Celona and Saitta hope the Summer Jazz Series will be a rousing success. If it is, Celona said he’ll bring in similar artists throughout the season in between plays.
- The Sherry Williams Quartet: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25.
- Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton: 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21.
- Josh Nelson: 7 p.m., Friday, July 22.
- Carl Saunders and his quartet: 7 p.m., Saturday, July 23.
- Jennifer Leitham Trio: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 25-27.
CV Rep’s Summer Jazz Series takes place at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for each show plus a post-show reception sponsored by Gelson’s Market. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.