Jazz and Cabaret—Unlikely Lovers?
Jazz and cabaret—for a long time two quite separate genres—are increasingly invading each other's territory. There are undoubtedly many reasons, one of which could be that practitioners of the two marginalized performing categories are finding strength in huddling together. Perhaps it's also to do with the maturing of attitudes: Sophisticated adult entertainment has validity no matter who's playing in what mode or in what venue. Maybe it's that cabaret artists who deploy jazz musicians behind them are hearing other ways to treat the songs they sing.
Whatever the cause(s), it looks as if we're at the beginning of a trend with legs. Well, look at examples like Billy Stritch, who's been carting jazz into cabarets rooms with ebullience, or the incredibly gifted Jane Monheit, who draws on cabaret techniques when playing jazz rooms. Like the increase of same-sex marriages, the union of jazz and cabaret may very well be making a lasting bid.
You know it's jazz if : 1) the singer rehearses in front of the audience; 2) the musicians discuss charts with the singer and make impromptu changes; 3) there's no lighting check and, indeed, the music stands are lighted better than the singer; 4) no big deal is made about wardrobe; 5) there's no set patter, and all is ad libbed, or—in musician's parlance—lib-labbed; 6) the singer refers to what she or he is doing as a "set," not an "act."
There are undoubtedly many more, but I'm only going to mention one by quoting Conklin, who said humorously to a late arrival at an 8 o'clock show, "This isn't cabaret where they start at 8:10." And yet, if Conklin—by her own testimony—isn't doing cabaret, she has something to show any colleague from across the narrowing divide. And it isn't how she employs her smoky mezzo, rarely ending a song on the tonic—although she puts it to effective use throughout. And it isn't her appearance—although she looks perfectly composed with the long reddish hair falling to her shoulders and the simple black dress with a pin at the cleavage. And it isn't exactly her choice of material—although she selects with bold delicacy from a range of songs old and new, pop and rock.
What's so appealing as she meanders from tune to tune is that she often says a few helpful introductory words. She does it so off-handedly that it's not immediately noticeable how well she sets up the ensuing emotional journey or humorous trip. Without being pushily autobiographical, she explains why the songs have meaning for her—always a plus. In one instance, she talked about losing a pet recently and, in looking around for some commemorative ditty, could only locate Jay Leonhart's "Beat My Dog." Among the other songs she sailed through—with Martin Wind, Tony Romano, and Tony Jefferson having a good time behind her—were Bob Dorough's "You're the Dangerous Type," Tom Waits' "Broken Bicycles," a more than usually suggestive version of Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and her signature tune, "Crazy Eyes."
In a tuxedo of the type he's been taking out of his closet since he first backed Judy Garland in 1958, Leonhart looks like someone who could have played in a band Jay Gatsby hired for one of his blow-outs—someone, by the way, who was on to Gatsby before any of the poseur's ritzy crowd saw through him. That's because Leonhart notices odd things about people, but also knows the value of the tongue placed firmly in cheek until he can get to a blank composition sheet.
Leonhart writes in a tradition honored by Mose Allison and Dave Frishberg. He reported to his audiences (the gig has ended) that his songs come from words and phrases he jots down immediately after he's had an insight. He records each reaction in rhymed couplets "because I just might want to sing it one day." When he does, it's in a bourbon-on-the-rocks voice, and with songs about encountering Leonard Bernstein on a cross-country flight, about not having the luxury Robert Frost had of lazing around dreaming up poetry, about listening to Vladimir Horowitz play, about performing in front of a bored Duluth couple. Sometimes he gets even more fanciful, as in his hilarious "Customs."
Entertaining as Leonhart is, it must be said that an evening of rhyme schemes limited to couplets takes on a woozily repetitive feel, and it didn't help that the master musician forgot his words a few times. Once, he shrewdly extracted himself from a pickle by admitting he was caught up in the melodic riff he'd discovered. His opener is "It's Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass," which may be a truer sentiment more often than he means it to be.
In a show called "Anthems" and with new accompanist Louis Goldberg adding to the fun, the plump, curvaceous, and blonde McNight has a definite I've-lived-fully-and-loved-it air and flare. She enters through the audience with a couple of Cole Porter's tips of the hat to New York, and then runs a lengthy gamut of additional emotions—shaking her booty on the bawdy songs, kidding with ringsiders, not flinching from tears on Craig Carnelia's "The Kid Inside," risking sentimentality when dedicating "The Impossible Dream" to a deceased fan, throwing in a few deft impersonations. She even has a few laughs on high priestess Julie Wilson.
As she puts her high belt and low growl to good use, McNight's influences couldn't be more apparent. She recalls Sophie Tucker (well, she tours a one-woman show about the great vaudevillian), Tammy Grimes, Betty Hutton (a show brewing on the Hutton-tot, too, along with Betty Grable and Bette Davis), and there's some Bette Midler in her choppy stride. But, though she brings other performers to mind, she also displays a quality only the best cabaret performers have: she's unique.