Woman Around Town: Hilary Kole—Jazz is Her Bailiwick

Twenty-one year-old Hilary Kole attended The Manhattan School of Music as a Jazz Commercial Composition major, one of three program auditions she passed with flying colors- the only one of the three offering a full scholarship. Before getting into the Conservatory, she’d never heard of Charlie Parker and thought Ella Fitzgerald was white. Jacki Presti, the leader of the school’s jazz chorus and Hilary’s mentor would get her an occasional gig to supplement waitressing. She told her protégé to expect a call.

“Hi, this is Roger Page with The Steven Scott Orchestra…do you have a demo?” “Uh…yes,” answered the nonplused young woman. She immediately called Jacki who took her into a studio to make one. The demo was sent. A week later, Hilary auditioned. Despite being nervous, she performed well and was asked to the venue. “Please bring your repertory list”—something else she didn’t have. “Mom, I think I got a job,” Hilary said from the first pay phone she could find. “That’s fantastic,” said her mom. “It’s at The Rainbow Room.” Mrs. Kole let out a scream. “Where’s The Rainbow Room?” asked Hilary. (Photo above, is a 21 year-old Hilary singing at The Rainbow Room).

Her hurriedly completed list consisted of fifty songs that were “vaguely familiar. I could read anything, but I didn’t know anything. My grandmother took me shopping at an outlet center. We bought a wanna-be-sophisticated prom dress. Always present yourself as a lady and a star, she advised. Hilary learned all fifty songs. She did six different sets from 7:30pm – 1:00am. On her feet. At twenty-one, she was offered $50,000 to be the girl singer with The Rainbow Room Orchestra. The rent on her very first apartment (as well as installments on student loans) would be paid. Whew.

Ambitious and determined, Hilary learned an additional hundred songs. Her own standards have always been the highest she encounters. She loved dressing in the colorful gowns they bought her. “The poor guys were wearing purple tuxedos.”For the next 1 ½ years Hilary went to school during the day and worked every night. Late. “Looking out at a dance floor and seeing what people respond to is such good training. Unfortunately, no one has that opportunity anymore.” She sang on the last night of the iconic venue.

Hilary’s piano lessons began at five years old and cemented in earnest with a Juilliard teacher at age ten. Her grandmother, by description an old school mixture of Auntie Mame and Broadway Danny Rose (a talent booker,) had been a trained classical musician. Hilary was gifted. Awarded full scholarship to seven summers at the prestigious Walden program in Dublin, New Hampshire, she composed classical music which would be formally performed by professionals.

Her mother had done some theatrical work as a child but purposefully left it behind at eighteen. Her father, Robert Kole, on the other hand, had been a successful Broadway actor, even replacing Larry Kert as Tony in the original production of West Side Story. By the time Hilary was born, he performed mostly at supper clubs and in the Catskills. And taught voice. His daughter gave little thought to singing, but learned how to breathe and to use the young instrument she had. Singing in the shower one day, she heard her father’s knock on the thick frosted glass, “Drop your jaw, Hilary,” he said.

At 14, a freshman in high school, Hilary stood backstage before a rehearsal of The Wizard of Oz (in the lead) and thought, I want to do this forever. Then she’d go home to secretly write song cycles. “I was a duel musical personality.” And so it continued: musicals at school, classical during the summer. Hilary was a practical girl. She’d moved many times as a child subject to the vicissitudes of show business, and wanted a secure income. Perhaps the law. After one semester at SUNY New Paltz, however, she returned to the passion of her music and her love of New York, auditioning at Juilliard, Mannes and The Manhattan School of Music. Outside the third, she saw “students sitting on the steps making out.” No pretentions there. Hilary applied. This is where we came in.

Towards the (as yet unknown)end of her tenure at The Rainbow Room, Christopher Gines, who’d come in to sub for crooner Shawn Mahoney, suggested Hilary consider cabaret. She rejected the idea outright. “I thought I was hot stuff. I was getting a weekly check. At the time, I had no understanding of what cabaret was, and besides, I thought the Rainbow Room was going to last forever. ” Then it closed. She was devastated, but picked herself up, and called Chris…who introduced her to Eric Comstock. The men had an idea to create a show around the music of Frank Sinatra. (Photo above, Hilary, center, with Eric, left, and Christopher, right. Photo credit: Bill Westmoreland).

“I went to Eric’s apartment, knowing neither of them very well. I think I sang Cheek to Cheek (Irving Berlin) and The Lady is a Tramp (Rodgers and Hart) I remember Eric saying, that’s really great, do you know the melody? I was a jazz singer trying to impress him.” They appreciated each other’s talent, liked one another as people, and began to visit cabaret rooms. It was Hilary’s first real exposure. The three developed Our Sinatra, which opened at The Oak Room for a scheduled two week run.

“I never thought about a relationship with the audience until opening night at The Algonquin. At The Rainbow Room, they weren’t focused on me…Stephen Holden was this far away! (Hilary extended her arm to indicate some six feet. She was referring to the senior critic at The New York Times). Eric and Chris took a big gamble.” It paid off. The show moved to The Blue Angel Theatre, and stayed four years. “I did 1331 performances.” When it went on the road, Hilary stepped away and began to make a modest living singing jazz/cabaret with a band.

About a year later, Producer Jack Lewin, who’d set up The Blue Angel, telephoned to say they were going to mount it again. Hilary’s response was, “Thanks, I’m done.” “It’s at Birdland,” Lewin added. The iconic venue was irresistible. She agreed. Our Sinatra ran a week, then six months of early shows, enough time for Hilary to connect with owner/impresario, Gianni Valenti. “We fell madly in love with each other, both having sworn never to be involved with anyone in the other’s profession. It’s a cliché, I know.” The couple have been together eight years. Kismet.

Valenti encouraged Chris, Eric and Hilary to write another show, which resulted in Singing Astaire. She had enough confidence then to write a first show for herself. Based on the lyrics of Marilyn and Alan Bergman, it featured a flute and guitar. Though she hopes to create Leonard Bernstein and Peggy Lee shows, Hilary prefers to make the evenings personal expressions. She combs through thousand of lyrics looking for things that resonate at the time.

The song Never Let Me Go (Livingston/Evans), for example, was something she always wanted to sing but didn’t feel the time was right. It’s in her current show. Why now? “The song is emotionally raw, maybe I was scared of its not being believable.” Hilary is taking more risks with her choices, challenging herself to go where certain songs take her. Singing is an intimate experience for this chanteuse. “When I was younger, it was about making the song sound pretty. Now, I think about letting the music and words tell the story and it just comes through me.” To Hilary, this is a matter of trust, something she faces every night she performs.

The Hilary Kole Quartet started touring the country and now additionally plays Paris, London, Switzerland, Jazz Festivals in Italy and regularly in Japan—her first CD sold 30,000 copies there. The shows are tailored to each audience. “In Tokyo, they like swing more than the ballads because of the language barrier. I can sing very obscure songs in New York I don’t do in the Midwest.” She herself arranges ninety per cent of the material. (And still writes classical music! Shhhhhhhh)

Hilary has two CDs behind her. The first, Haunted Heart, a swingy, effervescent compilation, was produced by friend and mentor John Pizzarelli (in photo above). “I love the idea of working with a producer who’s also a musician.” Hilary calls it her “Hello, it’s nice to meet you” CD. The second, You Are There, produced by Gianni Valenti, features eleven legendary pianists accompanying Hilary on piano/voice duets of their own arrangements. A third, with Pizzarelli producing again, will be out in the fall. www.hilarykole.com

Despite performing predominantly standards, Hilary stays clear of replicating the style of the era in which they were written. “When I was in The Rainbow Room, I put myself into those dates, I was that girl. Now, I’m just me.” Jazz is her bailiwick. After a song is arranged and format “bases” set, her band improvises. She gets a kick out of responding to the skill and originality of what’s happening around her musically. “It changes my story internally.” Each night is apparently a little different, a little off balance, just the way Hilary likes it.

And dreams? “…just doing this on a higher level…oh, and I’d love to do a classic Broadway show. I love to work—everyday.”

When she was fourteen and about to play Dorothy, her father told Hilary, “Two hours from now, everyone will be gone from the theater. Two hours from now it’s all over, so enjoy this moment. It’s your moment.”

Hilary Kole is doing just that.

The Hilary Kole Quartet will be performing every Sunday at 6 p.m. at Birdland www.birdlandjazz.com

and Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle every Sunday in May. www.thecarlyle.com

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Café Fiorello, across from Lincoln Center—before the opera-pizza at the bar
Favorite Place to Shop: Montmartre, Barney’s, Saks-I’m a Saks girl through and though
Favorite New York Sight: Manhattan School of Music because when I see it, it reminds me of when I first arrived. And Lincoln Center still takes my breath away.
Favorite New York Moment: The first time I got to play Alice Tully Hall for The American Songbook series, a request that came from Jonathan Schwartz. And the first two weeks of Our Sinatra. I lived at The Algonquin for two weeks and felt like a movie star.
What You Love About New York: Walking around, window shopping—the Village & Madison Avenue
What You Hate About New York: The winters. I hate being cold. But I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

About Alix Cohen (803 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.