Blogging, Singing, and Part-time Pursuits

by Kathy Reilly,Guest Blogger for May 2008

While anticipating my month as DC Cabaret Network’s guest blogger, I imagined myself getting out more frequently to see and hear everything even remotely cabaretish the metro region has to offer. Well, this is not exactly the way things are sizing up but it is still early.

I have not been out to hear a singer, or musical show or concert, since the April 21 Open Mic, which, by the way, was a terrific night of musical performance. I won’t write about how busy I am, we all have jobs and obligations; nor about the dearth of choices vis-à-vis cabaret singers and venues. There is, after all, musical theater; comedy, jazz and pop abound; Millennium Stage, and Wolf Trap is in season, and more. There is always something to see. A good source for May-June listings is on Michael Miyazaki’s blog.

I did get lucky in late April when on my way to the Open Mic I caught half of a show (free, too!) at the National Portrait Gallery with Julia Nixon (recently of “Caroline or Change” at the Studio) playing Sarah Vaughan in “All That Sass!” Jewell Robinson, the museum’s public program director, narrated and produced this biographical sketch and introduced Nixon as Sarah, adding background notes between songs to make it a meaningful story about her life.

Years ago, I was a huge Sarah Vaughan fan and I know I copied her style early on when I first started singing solo before audiences. I remember singing “All Too Soon” at a jazz singers’ workshop I took where I was asked why I kept going into my head voice. I told them it was a rangy song and I had to, and that Sarah did that all the time. The instructor didn’t think it was right for a jazz singer. Well, Julia did it too, and the program noted that Julia’s four-octave range was similar to Sarah’s. I do not have that capability but why not use what you have no matter the idiom? Of course, whatever you use, it has to work.

The show’s musical-biographical approach to presenting a body of work or particular artist is a popular way to put up a show and audiences like it. It worked very well in the Arena Stage’s production of “Ella” with Tina Fabrique, whose rendition of Ella as a singer was excellent even with a very light bio-story to hold it together. I saw Ella perform at Carnegie Hall and remember not being a real fan when it started but I sure was when I left. She cooked; she worked; she was all about the music like an instrument. Not a lot of patter, just lots of singing and Fabrique captured that Ella very well. Even if you are not fond of scat singing you can’t help but wonder how they keep it going, and some of Ella’s ballads did offer a glimpse of a vulnerable and, to me, sad woman.

I am sorry that I missed the recent two-women show about Alberta Hunter, whose very existence offers me a ray of hope that one day, I will put up a full show. Of course, Alberta ‘s comeback at 82 was stunning and in performance she exuded enough sass and bawdiness to make you think getting old doesn’t matter at all.

Another recent show that I caught almost by accident was “Smokey Joe’s Café” at the Bethesda Theater. This show featured the songs of Leiber and Stoller, which include some big hits from the fifties and sixties like “Dance with Me,” “Searchin,” “Kansas City,” “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Fools Fall in Love.” This last number was recorded by John Pizzarelli on his first album and that is how I came to know it and like it. The show had no story line and should have been billed as a Leiber and Stoller review. There were too many weak points but I was surprised to find myself liking some of the new arrangements to songs I knew (too oldie and not so goodie) and delighted to hear a few new songs, particularly a very sexy “Some Cats Know,” which I learned Peggy Lee once recorded. The young cast was really enthusiastic and talented and there were a few well choreographed moments.

What I am learning from seeing shows like these and others is that the sources for material are as endless as the styles and stories of performers. And I am always thrilled to hear someone do something new with an old song that I would never consider performing and might never listen to.

The lines are blurring between musical styles or catagories and that trend is likely to continue. Just take a look at the line-up for the New Orleans Jazz Festival: Sheryl Crow, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Buffet and Elvis Costello are not jazz artists but they do bring in large audiences who just might be introduced to someone new who could be a jazz-cabaret performer. And round and round it goes.

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