Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Founded by Molly Ryan and Bria Skonberg in 2015, The NY Hot Jazz Camp, held not in tents or bunks, but at Greenwich House Music School, presents an opportunity for both young people and adults (separately) to learn from some of the best artists in the community, to meet like-minded musicians, and to be broadly exposed to a genre epitomized by such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. This year’s session ends with a knock-out two hour concert at Birdland. If you want to feel better about the world, listen to these performers. (Personnel below)
“Royal Garden Blues” (Spencer Williams) sounds like anything but. Jesse Gelber’s stylish piano has clarity and clout, surprising power in curved fingering; Jim Fryer bends forward from the knees, back from the waist, then swivels (like the music), his trombone an extra limb; Randy Reinhart takes curves on cornet like a luge; Nick Russo’s guitar is layered, resonant; Jared Engel almost lays his head on the cherished bass communing; Dan Levinson’s clarinet gleefully gambles; on drums, Kevin Dorn is upright, deadpan, arms with a life of their own…
Molly Ryan and the Band-Bria Skonberg trumpet
Portions of the band have played together for 28 years, but until tonight have never all shared a stage and are we lucky! There isn’t a weak link. Mutual admiration is palpable, symbiosis exuberant.
“What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?” (Walter Donaldson/Abe Lyman) arrives not with regret, but rather a shrug and an amble to the next adventure. Levinson’s sax is smoooth, Russo pats, plucks and strokes guitar, Engel’s bass and Fryer’s trombone converse, Reinhart’s sound zig-zags.
Vocalist Queen Esther offers Alberta Hunter’s lively “My Castle’s Rockin” and a honeyed “Your Jelly Roll is Good” …but it ain’t as good as mine…like a true storyteller with unerring attitude and silent film eyes. Later, Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” (the lady should do a Smith show) and a bottle of beer…sashays in with sinuous clarinet, rear wiggling banjo, chortling trombone, and the singer’s use of subtle wrist and hip action. Her alto is clear and strapping. Fryer’s trombone makes sarcastic comments. It’s perceptibly a voice.
Queen Esther and the Band
We’re treated to an early Tin Pan Alley number vocalist Molly Ryan calls her current mantra. “Save Your Sorrow” for tomorrow/Smile awhile today…(Buddy De Silva/Al Sherman) is the single ballad in the show. Ryan’s creamy phrasing leaves understated, vibrating trails that disappear down her throat. She makes it look effortless. Gelber’s piano scintillates with companionable appreciation.
Bria Skonberg replaces Reinhart on trumpet for Leo Wood’s “Somebody Stole My Gal.” The foot tapping, head bobbing rendition isn’t at all mournful. Skonberg’s contribution is bright, lucid and wide-stroked. Denouement is sweet, exit emphatic. “I’m going to play second trumpet to my King Oliver, she then announces referring to Oliver’s mentoring of Louis Armstrong. Face to face, or rather horn to horn, Skonberg and Reinhart joyously play (think jungle gym, seesaw, and slides) Lew Pollack’s “That’s A Plenty”. Horns are sassy, banjo stunt skates, bass draws rhythm like breath.
The evening closes with “Blues My Naughty Sweetie” featuring the mastery of nimble-fingered Levinson (also our appealingly wry MC) and Dorn’s impressive drum turn during which both Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich must be smiling. (Dorn never does.)
These consummate musicians make me want more hot jazz in my life. The audience leaves energized, beaming. What more could one ask?
Guest Banjo: Cynthia Sayers
“Our goal is to provide instruction to musicians of all skill levels, who want to further their knowledge in the styles of traditional/classic jazz in a positive and supportive environment. The curriculum pulls from jazz’s inception in New Orleans through its journey to New York and Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s and subsequent West Coast stylings.”
Birdland is peppered with show biz illuminati tonight, performers and songwriters alike. There’s a buzz in the air. The occasion is a coming out party for Karen Mason’s first CD in 8 years. Rather than an evening of eleven o’clock numbers, the beautifully calibrated show, selections from It’s About Time plus a few earlier favorites, showcases an actress who knows how to inhabit intensity without volume.
Ira and George Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” strolls in on Tedd Firth’s nuanced piano. This is when one hears just how good she is. Its sentiment is mature, authentic, the vocal pure. Ba-dump-da-da-da-da “Just in Time” hitches a ride, mid-tempo, but eeeazee. (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green from Bells Are Ringing.) Its title line rides very cool percussion. Mason slowly revolves slowly taking us all in. She doesn’t so much bounce as dance in place as if about to.
Referring to “4000 sent emails,” the artist quips that all those years she was trying to be a nice girl, when it’s the annoying one that fills the room. Comfortable on stage, she’s gracious and wry. A gauzy “Finding Wonderland” (Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy from Wonderland) is paired with Alan Menken/Tim Rice’s optimistic “A Whole New World” (from Aladdin). We see her imagine the latter with such focus its as if sheer will might manifest change. Watch the left hand, fingers splayed, rise and reach forward …with you…fading like the curl of a smoke ring.
Chita Rivera, Chicago’s original Velma Kelly, is in tonight’s audience. Mason declares that performing “All That Jazz” in front of one of the women who introduced the number (with Gwen Verdon) is the ballsiest things she’s ever done. “Chita did the singing/dancing version. I’m going to do the singing/personality moving version.” It’s superb. She takes her time, elongating, sizzling, vocal rising like a geyser, spreading before falling. Hips gyrate just a tad, mischievous, restrained. The left foot kicks back. (John Kander/Fred Ebb)
Brian Lasser’s utterly lovely “I Met a New Friend” and the tandem “Lorna”/”I Want to Be With You” (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams from Golden Boy) are deftly understated. The former, a well painted story-song, is tender. The latter, accompanied by dramatic piano, leaves Mason’s fierce vocal to cut to the bone.
Special Guest, songwriter/producer Paul Rolnick (Mason’s husband), also has a CD debuting. Accompanying himself on the soft rock “Strumming My First Guitar” (written with John Nanni) he in fact, utilizes his very first guitar. It has a Superman sticker on one side. As a performer, the artist is comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans. His voice (and songs) feel honest and familiar.
Rolnick also offers his CD’s title song, Emmy nominated “Shoot for the Moon” (written with Dennis Scott) in duet with Mason- describing and performed with palpable affection. My favorite of this segment is “Cold Enough to Cross” (written with Henry Cory): Though this river may be frozen/We should try at any cost/Cause now it might be cold enough to cross…a poetic, country-sounding ballad with the plainspeak wisdom of a good haiku and swaying melody.
Four iconic selections by Mason follow. Among these are Harold Arlen/George Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away” and Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” Mason tells us Judy Garland, who introduced both these songs, was a huge influence on her. Steal from the best, she tells us, then make it your own. She does.
Fully able to careen off the walls with the skill of an aerialist, Mason instead approaches the Gershwin song in thrall to pain, unlike Garland, unable to unleash till the very end. As to the Harburg, I can’t help but recall Julie Wilson’s admonition that no one should attempt it. “I’ve resisted this song for many years,” Mason tells us. Bearing witness, she delivers affecting hope against hope, perhaps speaking for us all, but also in her own distinct voice.
We close with “It’s About Time.” (Paul Rolnick/Shelly Markham.) Created bespoke for the marriage of gay friends, the song is universal, heartfelt, and gracefully crafted. I recommend its use on loving occasions. I found myself humming its melody on the way home.
Musicianship is impeccable. Direction admirably invisible.
Karen Mason: It’s About Time Guest: Paul Rolnick Directed by Barry Kleinbort Music Supervisor- Christopher Denny Tedd Firth-MD/Piano, Bob Renino-Bass, Rex Benincasa-Drums Birdland Jazz Club 315 West 44 Street
“The British invasion” Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano point out, did not, in fact, begin with the Beatles. Long before arrival of The Fab Four, songs from music halls and London’s West End found their way across the pond. This upbeat show is an appreciation of material that enriched our canon. Songs, Fasano says, for Lady Mary and her grandchildren. (Referring to Lady Mary Crawley in PBS’s Downton Abbey.)
A jaunty opening bookends past and present with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” One can practically feel the mood in the club improve. Comstock then offers “London By Night” (Carroll Coates): Most people say they love London by day/But lovers love London by night…painting with his voice and piano. Fasano’s “These Foolish Things” (Eric Maschwitz/Jack Strachey) arrives in an our song interpretation. The vocalist takes her time, allowing each warm emotion to expand into the air. Control is pristine.
A wry “Everything Stops for Tea” (Al Hoffman/Maurise Sigler/Al Goodhart) is cited as an example of the British Songbook seeing a lighter side to life. Songs that take that point of view about immigration, trade, depression, stalking, sexism, and alcoholism follow, a few apt lines each.
From The West End, we’re treated to Comstock’s tandem “Who Can I Turn To?” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley- The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd) and Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love?” (Oliver.) The performer adds sweetness to melancholy in a splendid low key rendition.
Out of the pop world, Fasano delivers Tony Hatch’s “I Know a Place” (with a few lines from his “Downtown”) and “I Only Want to Be with You” (Mike Hawker/Ivor Raymonde). Hatch’s songs are accompanied by a practiced Frug. The Hawker/ Raymonde is treated without flippancy in a more sophisticated arrangement adding appeal.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Eric Maschwitz/ Manning Sherwin) is wistful but not wispy in these skilled hands. Fasano shares the piano bench with her husband. Traditionally a solo, the lyric suddenly becomes shared nostalgia. Both vocalists had evidently recorded the song and decided after 12 years of marriage it was time to perform it together. The last verse floats down like a feather in the wind. He kisses her shoulder.
Pairing the eclectic “The Wind in the Willows” (Vivian Ellis/Desmond Carter) popularized by the great Leslie Hutchenson with Sting’s “Fields of Gold” is sheer Comstock/Fasano. Expect the unexpected. Comstock’s version of the first is lovely. Fasano sings the second shoulders back, a signature stance when she’s serious. Gestures come from further away gaining territory and importance. Fingers splay for emphasis. The “character” is stilled by overwhelming emotion. “We’ll Meet Again” (Ross Parker/ Hughie Charles) showcases the innately cool talent of jazz bassist Sean Smith. Oddly, Noel Coward’s iconic “London Pride” is arranged as a sashay robbing it of gravity.
In Billy Reid’s “It’s a Pity to Say Goodnight”: It’s a pity to say goodnight/Because I want you to hold me tight/But if gotta go home, you gotta go home/Give me a goodnight kiss…Fasano make’s “howzabout” a literate word. Flirting, she bounces, adding a bit of hip and shoulder action.
The evening closes with a beautiful version of “If Love Were All” (Noel Coward). …Cares would be ended if I knew that he (pause)/Wanted (sigh) to have me near…
Photos by David Rosen
Downton Abbey Road: The Best of Britain
Barbara Fasano &, Eric Comstock with Sean Smith-Bass
Birdland 315 West 44th Street
December 20, 2016
Louis Rosen, composer/songwriter/librettist/musician/author/educator is a Jewish white man for whom black experience profoundly resonates. He’s also a musician with an affinity for serious poetry. My first impression of the artist reflected neither of these attributes. Comfortably ensconced on a stool at New York’s Birdland, he sang his own songs, playing acoustic guitar. They were, as I said in my review, literate, sincere, folksy… a graceful advocate of understatement. It felt like the 1970s.
The second part of the program consisted of selections from Dream Suite, music by Rosen, words by Langston Hughes. I wrote, Songs arrive full blooded and black, hybrid American opera-without libretto… roots lay in gospel, R & B, boogie woogie, blues… Like George Gershwin, here was an artist who effectively burrowed under the skin of black culture. Rosen, however, had no need for theatrical thru-line. Each lyric could be married to music specific unto its sentiments.
A little research unearthed the prolific composer’s Twelve Songs on poems by Maya Angelou, One Ounce of Truth-The Nikki Giovanni Songs (with Dream Suite, these comprise The Black Loom Trilogy) and The Ache of Possibility utilizing more Giovanni. What, I wondered was the source of such fellow feeling? What was his journey?
Rosen was raised on Chicago’s far South Side in a mile square enclave of middle class, Jewish white folks who built the community just after World War II. It was “A good place to buy a home, raise children, build a synagogue, and enjoy the fruits of family life.”
Starting when he was 10, and escalating to “white flight panic mode” after the Martin Luther King assassination, something uncomfortable happened to his secure, picturesque neighborhood. Despite avowed lack of prejudice, as black people traded up and moved in, Rosen’s white buddies and their families moved out. The Jewish Community Center and then the Temple shut down. “People succumbed to the fear their homes wouldn’t be worth anything after awhile.” There’s regret in his response and a tinge of former confusion. “It was happening all over the country.”
The boy and his contemporaries were in the eye of the storm. There had always been blacks and Latinos in school “you assumed the price for entering the Men’s Room (in high school) was a quarter,” but never like the incoming wave. Still Rosen was physically assaulted only once and then by two Chicago policeman because he had long hair. They threw him against the patrol car, “did a mildly rough search, no doubt looking for drugs, and found none. It wasn’t serious, but it taught me what it is to be targeted based on appearance.”
His family stayed another five years, then moved a few miles away. Mrs. Rosen, like many others, suffered the loss of her dream house and hopes of growing old within the community that had nurtured her marriage. It wasn’t until age 40, when he interviewed past residents in an effort to fully understand the phenomenon, the artist found empathy for what occurred.
Shakespeare to Sondheim
Though his family played an American Songbook version of “Name That Tune” around the dinner table, young Louie Rosen was into R & B. He joined a garage band performing – before closure – at The Jewish Community Center and bar mitzvahs. By 16, he’d dispensed with drums teaching himself piano and guitar. He also began to write, albeit without knowledge of notation. Singer/songwriters made him want to be a musician. When neighborhood street sounds changed, the teenager heard so much soul music, it annoyed, rather than intrigued him. “If I have any regret, it’s that I never went down to the blues clubs in Chicago.” I glance at the porkpie hat.
After an ambivalent Gap Year, Rosen buckled down to college and then The Chicago Conservatory. He might, he conjectures with implicit shrug, have been a basketball coach or history teacher were it not for this chapter. Extremely broad programs included jazz orchestration and a class on Stravinsky.
Rosen kind of fell into theater. The last year at school, he shared a house with his playwright brother; thespians converged. At 22 and wet behind the ears, he was hired to compose a score for Romeo and Juliet and six songs for an Aristophanes play. It was the first time he coupled music with verse. Supporting himself by teaching, he went on to score Macbeth and Winter’s Tale inadvertently becoming the city’s go-to Shakespeare guy.
“I had no experience with black culture; classical music doesn’t expose you to African American musicians.” A self proclaimed serious artist, the only theater composers he liked were Gershwin, Weil, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Exceptions might be made for those musicals attacking important subjects like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
In 1981, NYU inaugurated a pilot graduate program for theater writing. As a prologue, eight musicians were invited to spend three weeks in workshop with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Rosen came to New York. “At this point, Sondheim had just written Sweeney Todd. The 1970s made us think you could do serious, experimental theater.” His voice takes on energy in recollection.
The group met in a loft on Crosby Street. Rosen describes it as looking like “a heroin den.” He loved that uptown guys would come down for this. “The first thing I had to do as a young man was get over the fact that I was in the room with Sondheim and he was treating me like I had a right to be there. Once I did that, I had to listen very closely. He was unpretentious, but terse, with laser like precision zeroing in on problems…” The student especially learned form, lyric writing for character, and the significance of musical gestures that make take one from dialogue into song. They still occasionally communicate.
“I really liked Hal too. He criticized one of my songs in a way that to this day is the best put down I’ve ever had: `I feel the music is gratuitous’ and he was right, it was generic.” Up go the eyebrows.
That December, Rosen returned to New York (and stayed) entering NYU’s MFA program. A two week intensive with Leonard Bernstein was held on 47th Street, upstairs, next to The Gaiety Deli in a space donated by The Shuberts. “He was a showman. When he walked in, he stopped in the doorway and looked around until all eyes turned.” The Maestro wore a cape.
The first session was scheduled for three hours. When time was up, a loquacious Bernstein suggested if someone would get him dinner, he’d stay until he had to be at the theater. “They bring this greasy chicken. He’s eating and speaking with tremendous insight about Mark Blitzstein. There are these movie posters up on the wall. In the middle of a sentence, he takes a drumstick bone and says, `Let me see if I can hit Lana Turner in the tits,’ throws it, and goes on without missing a beat.” Rosen grins.
When a couple of students brought in a song with what they thought was a Greek feel, Bernstein sat at the piano and offered 20 folk music motifs on which they might’ve built. “He said, steal from the real and make it your own, don’t give me faux Greek…He enjoyed astonishing us.”
Avoiding what he felt was the language of popular music, Rosen wrote instead for Brecht’s Galileo and Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. “It’s like an actor getting a classical role. No one can do the definitive version.” He authored a successfully produced musical with Tom Bishop called Book of the Night and a song cycle entitled “A Child’s Garden of Verses” that blossomed into a second musical illuminating the life of Robert Louis Stephenson.
“I was really writing about my own childhood, the facts of his life in tandem with my emotional and musical crisis.” The piece is set on the last day of summer. An older Stephenson looks back working through a writer’s block. “It was interesting the degree to which I could communicate personally with someone else’s words.” The song cycle, what we called “concept albums” in the 1960s and 1970s, is an ideal form for Rosen. “Stories can be told, an emotional journey created, characters portrayed, but unlike musical theater, all the dots don’t need to be connected.”
The South Side
Rosen was now in therapy. It was time to face the past. Awarded the first NEA Grant given to an individual, he intended to create a musical theater piece based on growing up on the South Side. Six of the evocative songs he included with his grant application ended up on the CD South Side Stories. For perhaps the first time, an underbelly of jazz and blues, what he calls “the blue note” can be discerned in his music. “It metaphorically means the integration of everything I’d grown up with.”
…It was bungalows all in a row/Where a family dream could grow/And only Democrats knew where the bodies were buried/On the South Side…(“The South Side”)
I asked myself Why?/I asked myself, Who?/I answered some just don’t like barbecue on the/ South Side…Are we leavin’, are we stayin’?…Was the question, What to do?/Or was the question, What excuse do we use?… (“The South Side Blues”)
In the process, he realized not only that he didn’t understand what happened any better at 40 than he did at 13, but that his experience was not uncommon. “So I put aside music and started writing the book.” The South Side – The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood 1998
Tracking down and interviewing former black and white neighbors, Rosen created fifteen composite characters who “speak” rather like those in Our Town (Thornton Wilder) or Under Milkwood (Dylan Thomas). “I went in thinking racism was the only issue and came out understanding that fears were based on past history and the tribal nature of humankind.” A reference, in part, to the persecution of the Jewish people? Its author thinks of the edifying (nonfiction) volume as a spoken cantata. It was also something of an exorcism.
Miscommunication came up again and again:
“…knowing that blacks and Jews shared some similar experiences – you know, slavery, discrimination; we’d been partners in the civil rights struggle -I thought we had an awful lot in common. I was really surprised when certain things happened…that showed a gap between the two groups…” from a white woman
“So we felt. “Enough is enough. Fifty-fifty we don’t mind-living in an integrated community. But after that, forget it…It’s just like Tevye-you can’t look back.” …from a white man (Tevye is the protagonist in Fiddler on the Roof)
“I think I subconsciously felt we weren’t a wanted race, that it didn’t matter what you looked like, how you sounded, whether you were intelligent or educated – you just weren’t wanted, collectively….So when the Jewish people were leaving the neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised…” from a black woman
By the time Rosen started his next effort – Dream Suite, Songs in Jazz and Blues on poems by Langston Hughes – he’d read more books than he could count about the Antebellum South and a serious amount of African American poetry, from Harlem’s Renaissance to the 20th Century. “Hughes was the best… his work breaks through racial boundaries to touch the soul of humanity – racial, political, and personal….it says something worth saying.” Immersing himself in the author, Rosen devoured both autobiographies and a book of short stories. He identified with Hughes’ introspective nature.
“Most important for a composer, his poetry sings with natural ease and grace…the language is rich in imagery…yet always rooted in the American vernacular and soulfully direct in emotional expression…” The idea was to eschew art songs for settings within the broad reach of popular material.
“So called art songs by Schubert, Barber, Rorem live side by side with those of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim…It’s all one to me. If my musical voice is distinctive, its originality comes in the manner of synthesis…`Harlem Night Song’ (for example), starts with shades of Aaron Copeland and moves into shades of Jimmy Webb, though you don’t hear them explicitly.”
Rosen has been surprisingly successful with this approach. Much of what was written arrives so like songs it’s as if he collaborated with the lyricist. The CD of Dream Suite was inspired and recorded by Alton Fitzgerald White “we have a deep musical connection” who had been in the workshop of Book of Night and, upon recommendation, Capathia Jenkins, who became Rosen’s Muse, recording and performing with him ever since. “She and I come from completely different worlds, but the worlds become one with the work.”
“When Louie said I think I’d like to write for you, I didn’t take him seriously, but true to who he is, he called about a month after recording to tell me he started to sketch some of Maya Angelou’s poems. (one of her favorite poets)… It’s a tightrope to walk if you’re a white person trying to reflect the black experience. He gets it,” Jenkins says. Rosen’s settings are a challenge the vocalist relishes. If she doesn’t feel he’s written in her voice, that a song doesn’t speak to her, she tells him straight out. If the composer wants something “juiced” or “finessed” he speaks up. They describe Nikki Giovanni with the exact same phrases. It’s a symbiotic relationship, “an honor,” she adds.
Dream Suite was the first of the three song cycles that evolved into The Black Loom Trilogy. “If you take African American elements out of American music, you don’t have American music…That collision of cultures had a huge impact on my generation… it’s probably the most fundamental driving force in my life.”
Maya Angelou depicted the down and out with an edge Rosen found “sassy, political, and slightly angry.” He was attracted to the pride and dignity of her women. The composer also chose Angelou because the writing was a fit for Jenkins, “both her voice and being…these days I’m either writing for myself or Capathia.” Already familiar with Nikki Giovanni, he discovered over time her voice had mellowed becoming more positive. With gravity, there was new playfulness in the author’s poetry and prose. Giovanni has performed with Rosen and Jenkins. Jenkins calls her “salt of the earth.”
Louis Rosen and Nikki Giovanni
“At this point, the music was flowing at a pace that went beyond what I, as a lyricist, could keep up with. So every work for which I’d write music and lyrics would be matched by one or two where I set poetry to music… The journey of the three pieces is one towards light. I could personally express what I wanted to say through the content. It sang to me.” Rosen feels he’s currently finished with the black experience.
I ask how it is that religion hasn’t found its way into Rosen’s oeuvre. He’s addressed culture and history, but fixed on no Jewish writers for inspiration or raw material despite similarities in the black and Jewish experience and the environment in which he grew up. There’s a long silence. He responds by pointing to a song in South Side Stories about the relationship of a light skinned girl and dark skinned boy to which the girl’s parents object. “The original lyric was about a Jewish boy and a Gentile girl. I just wanted Capathia to sing the song, so I changed it slightly.” Except for a couple of isolated lines in two others, there are no additional references.
“I’ve struggled for years with the role of Judaism in my life. We went to synagogue, I had a bar mitzvah. By the time I was 15, Judaism had disappeared from the hood…I’ve never really felt a part of it. There are lots of things I’ve never felt a part of-like my generation…” Rosen thinks of himself as spiritual, not religious.
“My Third Act”
When James Lapine asked the composer (in 2014) to write music for his Lincoln Center production of Act One based on Moss Hart’s autobiography of the same title, Rosen hadn’t written for theater since the 2004 production of Moliere’s School for Husbands at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nor had he missed it. This is not to say Rosen hadn’t been busy. The artist almost always has several projects besides teaching Music Appreciation and Theory – everything from Bach to The Beatles – at 92Y School of Music over 30 years. He loves it. “It keeps me learning. When I learn something new I want to share it. The wow factor of discovery hasn’t gotten old for me.”
Lately, the multifaceted Rosen writes both music and lyrics in a chapter he calls more confessional than professional. “I think I was awakened to that distinction from an interview I read 30 years ago with Bob Dylan”; songs to get old by dealing with this moment in life. There are ballads, wry comments, and storysongs.
My son’s 529 Plan’s going M.I.A./My pulse rate is the opposite of A.O.K./I see rows and rows of red ink/Where there once was black/Stare into the abyss too long-/It’s gonna stare back… “The Middle Class (Used-To-Be) Blues”
“I still work a lot and I still want my work to be heard, but the desire now is driven less by large dreams than by the passion and joy of creating, then offering the work through performance and recording…The importance of being present with my wife and son, or spending a day wandering or reading in Prospect Park can’t be overstated. Social Security is visible on the horizon and as I said in `My Third Act’, eventually… I’ll be workin’ on my memoir while I’m workin’ on my tan.”
In December Rosen will perform his own music at The Duplex in collaboration with the formidable Karen Mason, whom he’s known since Chicago. A new CD, Dust to Dust Blues, will be released in 2017, the artist hopes to record both a 15 song cycle provisionally called “I Don’t Know Anything,” and, with Darius de Haas, A Child’s Garden Song Suite, inspired by the musical theater piece. Whew.
All Photos Courtesy of Louis Rosen Programs Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre Photos of Louis Rosen and Capathia Jenkins at Birdland by Kevin Alvey
In October 1989, Donald Smith’s four year-old Mabel Mercer Foundation held its first annual New York Cabaret Convention. The New York Times headline read: Cabaret Convention Ponders a Disturbing Future. “Is there a place for cabaret in today’s age of mass entertainment? That is the question being pondered this week on the stage of Town Hall…” Stephen Holden. According to Holden’s 1991 coverage of the event, its debut “…attracted an audience of 6,000, and in its wake, Smith said, he received 900 letters about the problems facing the cabaret industry.”
Let us breathe a deep communal sigh and persevere with a modicum of rosey tint on our glasses. Print media, except for the venerable Cabaret Scenes, may refuse to acknowledge us except for an occasional blurb, but the art form continues to exist and evolve.
Small rooms and piano bars pop up replacing storied nightclubs as venues in which performers showcase talent. 54Below has become (Michael) Feinstein’s/54Below, extending programming and attracting fresh audiences. The 92 St. Y’s robust Lyrics and Lyricists series goes on with the organization’s roster adding Harvey Granat’s delightful midday salutes to iconic composers and lyricists. Fairly new on the scene, Pangea delivers striking alternative cabaret. Gianni Valenti (of Birdland) promises an additional locale in 2017. PBS has taken to the front line presenting cabaret on television. The Mabel Mercer Foundation is in its 31st year.
The 27th Annual New York Cabaret Convention runs from Tuesday, October 18 through Friday, October 21 at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Artists this year range from 12 year-old Zoe Gellman and 15 year-old Joie Bianco (who KT Sullivan heard this year at Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook Academy Competition – she didn’t win…this time) to the eternally youthful Marilyn Maye. Sullivan is encouraged by all the young aspiring vocalists she’s met and has faith in the art form. “As long as people gather in small places, sometimes with a drink, they’ll want to sit and listen to musical stories- unlike rock and pop and rap.” Artistic Director KT Sullivan
Tuesday October 18: Opening Night Gala – Hosted by KT Sullivan
Featuring, in part, Christina Bianco, Allan Harris, Carole J. Buffard, Eric Yves Garcia
“Opening night is always different because I like to spotlight more new talent and more kinds of music and sounds. There are several artists who have never performed at a Convention. We’ll hear American Songbook, Weimar, Jazz, likely Noel Coward, contemporary writers, and Broadway. We’re even hoping to have a trio song from Hamilton. I try to see every performer live, though I chose one this season on the basis of a terrific video, and then advise on material presented in our show.” KT Sullivan
Wednesday October 19: Saluting Stephen Sondheim- Hosted by Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar
Featuring, in part, Karen Akers, Sidney Meyer, Steve Ross, Jennifer Sheehan, Celia Berk
“Since its inception the Cabaret Convention has been a chance for performers to shine, and what better way to feature their talents than with the wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim! The repertoire is vast and sparkling with humor and tenderness, more than enough familiar songs to please our audience, yet many lesser known songs have found their way into the evening to keep them on their toes. I particularly look forward to my duets with Jeff Harnar which have been the highlight of my hosting duties, so once again we’ll be “Side By Side.” Andrea Marcovicci
“Three years ago I was a performer who felt too intimidated by the Sondheim catalogue to even consider his songs for my performance repertoire. KT Sullivan changed all that when she invited me to do a two-hander Sondheim show with her. As a performer who has always felt most at home in the musical skin of Cole Porter, now in my mid-fifties, I find performing Sondheim’s lyrics gifts me with a similar musical intelligence and wit as Porter’s, but with an unmistakably 21st Century sensibility. For our fifth time out as co-hosts, Andrea Marcovicci and I will present a Sondheim songbook. No hesitation on my part saying yes to that. Jeff Harnar
Thursday October 20: Saluting Sylvia Syms – Hosted by Rex Reed
Featuring, in part, Joyce Breach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Nicolas King, Billy Stritch
Frank Sinatra, her friend and mentor for five decades, called Sylvia Syms “the world’s greatest saloon singer.” The vocalist was perhaps best known for intimacy, unabashed honesty, and the ability to sing a variety of styles while maintaining her signature voice. “When you perform it’s a one-to-one love affair with the people out there. That’s how it has to be.” Sylvia Syms
“Sylvia Syms was beloved by everyone with sensitivity, taste and even the most basic knowledge of the art of the Great American Songbook, so a tribute to her warmth, savvy, sophisticated understanding of a lyric, and the beauty of her deep, throaty voice is long overdue. In addition to her exalted place in the history of song, she was a close personal friend who taught and informed me, enriched my life, and made me laugh, so I convinced myself I was the right person to lead the parade in celebrating her life and extraordinary career. I hope what we have some up with will best represent the supreme legacy of the artistry of Sylvia Syms.” Rex Reed
Friday October 21: Saluting Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse – Hosted by Klea Blackhurst
Featuring, in part, Corrina Sowers Adler, Liam Forde, Shana Farr, Todd Murray, Scott Coulter
Sheldon Harnick, author of such as Fiorello and She Loves Me, is having a banner year of national and local recognition with multiple musical revivals in New York. He received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Composer Charles Strouse gave us such musicals as Golden Boy, the eternal Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, and Rags. “I never said to myself, How will I ever top this? …I mean, I like things to be a success, but the main thing is to keep working.” Charles Strouse
“As a little girl of four or five, I’d romp around the house belting out up-tempos from Fiddler On the Roof and Applause, Annie and The Apple Tree, among many others from our household collection. Flash forward to the preparations for the final night of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 27th New York Cabaret Convention. The focus is on Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse, titans from my ongoing record collection. The joy Sheldon’s words have brought into my life cannot be measured or fully understood. To be hosting the event is a thrill and a huge honor.” Klea Blackhurst
This year, the Convention will be preceded by several special events: Will Friedwald presents Cabaret Clips – rarely seen video and film of iconic performers – where does he find these?! at The Laurie Beechman Theater on October 15, 2016
On October 16th, also at the Laurie Beechman, one can be present at the live DVD recording of a show (at last!) by beloved performer (and booker) Sidney Myer “a lovable madcap singer/comedian with an audacious performing style who can touch your heart at the same time.” Steve Ross. People are already clamoring for tickets as the exquisitely wry Meyer performs so rarely these days.
On Sunday October 23rd following the convention, Urban Stages will reprise a special concert encore of the critically acclaimed Mabel Madness about the life of the Foundation’s legendary namesake written and performed by Tony Award Winner Trazana Beverly.
Coming Up: November 2016 KT Sullivan and Natalie Douglas accompanied by pianist Jon Weber will judge a Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Competition in Durango, Colorado for aspiring young singers.
April 2017 The Cabaret Convention returns to Chicago for its fourth gala run in that city after a hiatus. Watch for details on the Foundation web site.
Opening: Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
KT Sullivan and Rick Meadows at Town Hall – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff KT Sullivan – Photo by Maryann Lopinto Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff Rex Reed – Photo courtesy of Mr. Reed Klea Blackhurst- Photo by Bill Westmoreland
Sunday afternoon I took a mini-vacation with Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano- well, me and the rest of the audience at Birdland. Like genial tour guides, the couple lead us out of the oven, into the country, and onto the shore; away from traffic, the news, and personal troubles…Three songs in, with “Gone Fishin” (Nick Kenny/ Charles Kenny), it’s all in a rearview mirror. Cows need milkin’ in the barn/ But you just don’t give a – darn. Too true.
These two love the season in which they had their first date and married. I’m susceptible, Fasano sings, I shouldn’t be allowed out at night…she swivels to face Comstock, with anyone like you…longlined notes arc and sigh. (“Incurably Romantic”-James Van Heusen) Hide your heart from sight/Lock your dreams at night/It could happen to you…Comstock affectionately responds to the rhythm of a measured cha-cha. (“It Could Happen to You”-Sammy Cahn/Johnny Burke.) They play off each other with the illusive ease of a practiced trapeze act.
An unusual pairing of Vivian Ellis’s “Wind in the Willows” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold” create a story as do “Witchcraft” (Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman) and “How Little We Know” (Phil Springer.) During the latter, Fasano steps gently side to side. In her hands, this is not just a love song, it’s a life lesson. Sean Smith’s bass acts as backbone, piano notes are clear, singular, yet symbiotic.
“The Shining Sea” arrives with such delicacy, it’s as if we’re watching footprints in the sand gradually disappear. When a seagull lyrically tips its wings, so, sad and pensive, does Fasano. Comstock strokes the keys. Smith leans out as if gaining perspective, then curls around his instrument like a backwards C. (Johnny Mandel/ Peggy Lee’s title song for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming)
Fasano’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is one of my favorite Comstock arrangements. Classical piano accompaniment and bowed bass support languid phrases as they melodically hitch rides on a summer breeze. Control is impeccable.
Comstock shares the male point of view of Francesca Blumenthal’s fine “The Lies of Handsome Men” through the author’s less performed “Fireflies:” They shine and shimmer, lead you on/But the light grows dimmer comes the dawn…’A lovely song eloquently rendered. The performer remains urbane, but reflective, cottony tone allows us to hear hurt beneath sophistication. This is a nuanced singer, an untrained natural. His “Come By Sunday” (Murray Grand) arrives spirited and sassy- can you call a man sassy? Part spoken throwaways, part sung, delivery is seriously hip- which can’t be taught.
Jim Lowe’s wry “The Hamptons” There’s an awful lot of here here/But never for the square here… is sultry, flirty, flip.
We’ve experienced the best part of being away without waiting in an airport line or getting stuck in traffic. Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano exude mutual respect and warmth: a pat on the hip here, a pursed- lips-kiss across the piano there, the shared piano bench. “It’s not as if we’re competitive about breath control,” she quips having counted off the last note of Billy Strayhorn’s sashaying “You’re The One” on her fingers at the end of a duet. Our audience leaves refreshed, awash in infectious good spirits.
Opening photo Jeff Fasano
Second photo by Gianni Valenti