Randy Ross was a man of piercing, eloquent words and memorable musical notes.
A playwright, essayist, novelist, educator, composer and jazz saxophonist, Ross died Oct. 31, leaving behind a grieving family and community.
Ross was a leader in school reform where he worked for more than 20 years. In 2005, he became the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education’s first director of educational policy. He wrote the book “Government and the Private Sector: Who Should Do What?” in 1988 and has had educational essays and articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Education Week, The School Administrator and the American School Board Journal.
Ben Guillory, who co-founded the Robey Theatre Company with Danny Glover, remembered him as a beloved artist who received critical acclaim for his play “Birdland Blue” about Miles Davis and his quintet. The Robey produced that play in 2019.
“He joined our playwright’s lab,” Guillory said. “I started to look 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 to the Robey Theater Company. It fit our mission statement.”
Its mission statement is to develop and produce plays about the global Black experience and to reimagine Black classics.
Other plays Ross wrote included “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,” which is a new play by Levy Lee Simon that will be produced by the Robey in April.
In addition to his role as playwright at the Robey, Ross served on their fundraising committee and was the music director for many shows.
“He would find music or compose the music,” Guillory said. “He was an accomplished composer and jazz musician. He was a pretty good Renaissance man. He was a very talented guy that I had a lot of respect and admiration for. He was very straightforward — a what-you-saw-is-what-you-got, honest man. He had a sense of humor, but in the work, he was very clear and no-nonsense. He thought before he spoke.”
“Birdland” was an original piece about Miles Davis and other musicians who did the seminal jazz album of the time. The play focused on a night in the club where they worked. Not a musical, it is a play with music that celebrated notable jazz musicians.
“It was interesting to our audience and also very important because of what it was about,” Guillory said. “There is the whole cultural aspect that is part of a foundation of this country. Jazz music is really one of the few, if not the only, original cultural aspects to this country.”
Guillory said Ross was the perfect person to write the story due to 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 with dialog,” Guillory said. “He was very, very adept with it, and this was his territory. He himself is a jazz musician. He played alto saxophone, was a composer and was part of a quintet. My wife and I went often. They were classical jazz guys.”
Ross spent more than 50 years playing the saxophone and was a member of the Blue Morning Quintet.
Ross and a colleague of his, Marion Newton, played the music for the world premiere of “Birdland.” Guillory talked about their dedication during the rehearsal process and how the two of them helped an actor who had never played an instrument learn how to play standup bass.
“They (Ross and Newton) were consummate musicians, and this illustrated his commitment and seriousness about the work, his professionalism and his vision for the work,” Guillory said.
“That actor was 22 years old and just out of UCLA. He ended up playing the bass on stage and more or less talk-singing. It was just magical to have an actor who is not a musician become a musician during that rehearsal process. It gave an authenticity to the work.”
Guillory said Ross was an inspiration to all the actors and artists involved in the show.
“All artists are committed and have a vision, but the force, the genesis of that project in this case, Randy Ross, who wrote it and was in fact a musician himself — boy, we could not help but be immersed in the words,” Guillory said.
Ross is also a fiction writer, the author of a collection of short stories, “The Chocolate Man” and a novel, “When Are They Coming?”
Guillory hopes to produce more of his plays, but they aren’t yet certain when. He said Ross will be missed on personal, organizational and community levels.
“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 around 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 the culture, to the Robey Theatre Company, to theater and to music.”