Earlier this year, Next Avenue blogger John Stark wrote about Harry Connick Jr.’s controversial guest appearance on American Idol, in which he chastised young singers who were all style and no substance.
For those who missed it, Connick sought to coach the contestants on how to connect to the lyrics and to sing the melody first as written. He reminded them that the American Songbook has a rich history and that they would do well to study and learn from it. (When the show begins its next season in January, Connick will be one of the new judges.)
The judges and contestants questioned his rant and attempted to defend a contemporary style that features instrumental arrangements with dramatic swings in volume and attention-grabbing vocal pyrotechnics. You know what I am talking about — the part where the audience breaks into applause and cries “woo-woo!” as the singer contorts his/her face and trills up and down before belting out that one long-held high note. The sound can be impressive, but lost in the process is the melody — not to mention the song’s meaning.
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What’s Old Is New Again
As a singer, I am delighted that this rich vein of American culture is once again part of the national conversation. And as a fan, I would argue that this is the most exciting time in memory for fans of classic American music.
Just look at the latest wave of rockers who are looking back at our shared musical roots. In September Gloria Estefan released an album of standards from the 1940s and ’50s. She joins the ranks of Amy Winehouse and Rod Stewart, plus a roster of artists including Lady Gaga, who have collaborated with Tony Bennett on his Duets series. Whether you consider these records artistically successful or not, they are hits financially and prove that these great songs can still draw in audiences of all ages.
Fans of the American Songbook probably have their own proud collection of works by Streisand, Carly Simon, Michael Buble, Michael Feinstein, Norah Jones and Nellie McKay. But they needn’t look only backward. Today there’s a world of new singers making recordings and posting them on YouTube. Mainstream radio does not routinely play these artists, but a visit to ITunes, Spotify and CDBaby will yield a number of treasures.
The best way to experience this music, of course, is through live performance, ideally in an intimate setting with a cocktail in your hand. I love these venues because of how they nurture communication between the performer and the audience.
I’m trained as an actor, so for me every song is scene or story to be told, an opportunity to breathe new life and meaning into a familiar song. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me after a show to say they never really heard the lyrics to a contemporary number until they heard my rendition of it.
You never know who you’re going to meet in these clubs. I often include songs written by my dear friend Murray Grand (“Guess Who I Saw Today”) in my act. One night at the Gardenia Restaurant & Lounge in Los Angeles, I did one of his comedy tunes, "Doris Was Nice," about a guy falling in love with an ape named Doris. After the show, Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) approached me with folded arms and a raised eyebrow. "Did you sing that song for me?" she accused, and we both burst into laughter.
Years earlier, I was working at a club called Mickey’s with Cissy Houston. Bob Feiden of Arista Records had asked me to stay for her show to get my take on her daughter, whom Cissy was introducing in the act. Into the spotlight stepped this pretty teenager in a sheath dress, wearing minimal makeup. Barely moving, she sang a very pure version of Barry Manilow’s “All the Time.” Her beauty and simplicity — no vocal pyrotechnics then — were amazing. That child, of course, was Whitney Houston.
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Unleash Your Own Inner Artist
Are you the kind of would-be performer who silently mouths the words and wishes it were you up onstage? There are plenty of opportunities to let your inner cabaret singer out, from open-mic nights to classes and workshops. Most large cities have a Cabaret Association, which are great sources of information about local venues and performers. New York City has the MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) and Cab West (Cabaret West); Boston has BACA (Boston Association of Cabaret Artists); and in Chicago you can contact the CCP (Chicago Cabaret Professionals).
If you’re content to be a member of the audience and live in or near a big city, there are tons of venues for live performance, whether they are called cabarets, saloons, jazz clubs or piano bars. Music rooms are sprouting up like mushrooms around the country.
In a world full of noise and clatter, people yearn for the kind of intimacy a small music room provides. Like all live performance, you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s so worth the visit. I encourage you to go out and support live music, be it a cabaret, a piano bar or any other venue. Cabaret is an essential part of American culture. Let yourself be transported — and have a cocktail while you’re at it.
Craig Pomranz is an actor, dancer and recording artist who performs regularly in New York and overseas. He was named New York’s Best Male Vocalist 2012 by MAC and, for the second year in a row, has been nominated for Best Male Vocalist by BroadwayWorld.com, where readers can cast their own votes.