[JPL] Fw: WSJ: Eric Felten on Bobby Short

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Mon Mar 28 06:04:49 EST 2005

> A Life in Harmony
> With the Songs He Sang
> March 23, 2005; Page D8
> For those who never had the chance to see Bobby Short in person, he will
> probably be best remembered for his cameo performance in "Hannah and Her
> Sisters." Woody Allen's character drags his coke-snorting date to the Café
> Carlyle. And there is Bobby Short, the urbane antidote to nihilism, 
> singing
> Cole Porter's "I'm in Love Again."
> I was lucky enough to hear Bobby Short twice. The first time was a decade 
> ago,
> and frankly, the evening was nearly a disaster. I hadn't made a 
> reservation -- 
> Mr. Short was at the Café Carlyle every night for months on end, after 
> all,
> and I was taking my date to the late show at that. How crowded could it 
> be?
> Crazy crowded.
> The discreet application of cash to the maitre d's palm assured a table. 
> We
> sidled into a dim banquette and, cocktails in hand, settled in for what I
> expected would be a low-key performance. Wrong again. Backed with bass and
> drums, Mr. Short launched into a song. His arms flew up from the keys and 
> into
> the sort of triumphant gesture gymnasts make when they stick a landing. 
> His
> voice was a raspy clarion, hoarse from a lifetime of belting it out. The
> abandon in his voice was also on his face: Mr. Short's sheer exuberance 
> was as
> blinding as a stadium's worth of klieg lights.
> Ever since then, I had wanted to hear Mr. Short again, and got the chance 
> last
> November. My friend, saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, has led the little big 
> band
> that backed Mr. Short for the last several years. He was as much a fan as 
> a
> fellow musician: "My parents took me to hear Bobby when I was 13," Mr.
> Schoenberg says. He invited me to come up to New York to see Mr. Short 
> from a
> different vantage point, by sitting in with the band. At 80 years old, Mr.
> Short was every bit as electrifying as he had been when I first saw him.
> Entering the packed room to an ovation, Mr. Short didn't coast for a 
> second -- 
> he sold every song. I remembered Mr. Short's grin from seeing him 10 years
> before; what I noticed this time, sitting in the band, was the way he put 
> that
> same smile on the faces in the audience.
> Another musician who heard Mr. Short at a tender age is funky rocker Lenny
> Kravitz. "I've known Bobby Short since I was five years old," he says. "He 
> was
> the person who coaxed my mother into marrying my father." Mr. Kravitz 
> admired
> Mr. Short's impeccable style -- "the classiest gentleman I ever met in my
> life." But above all, he loved the way Mr. Short put across a Gershwin or
> Porter tune. "Bobby Short will remain my favorite artist of all time."
> By all accounts, Mr. Short was unfailingly gracious. He didn't retreat to 
> a
> dressing room between shows, but lounged in the "gallery," a small lobby
> between the Carlyle's café and its bar. There, relaxing with friends, he 
> would
> chat amiably with the patrons, whether they had come up to shake his hand 
> or
> just to ask for directions to the hotel's obscure bathrooms.
> Loren Schoenberg suspects that Mr. Short's graciousness grew out of the 
> long
> obscurity he knew before his success at the Carlyle. "His fame came when 
> he
> was well into his 40s," says Mr. Schoenberg. "Until then, he was scuffling 
> for
> gigs -- just getting by." That long stretch seems to have inoculated Mr. 
> Short
> from the disfiguring disease known as celebrity.
> Mr. Short was born in 1924 and grew up in Danville, Ill., the penultimate 
> of
> 10 children. One could say that it was ironic that Mr. Short -- a 
> Midwestern
> kid -- became an iconic New Yorker. Ironic, too, that an African-American 
> man
> would come to embody the sort of glittering, bygone world of high society
> that, in the 1930s, would hardly have welcomed him. But then again, it 
> isn't
> really ironic at all. Mr. Short lived an American life that was in perfect
> harmony with the songs he sang, one in which any man, every man, can be an
> aristocrat if he just takes the trouble to gain some sophistication.
> If there is an irony in Mr. Short's life, it is that he found fame in the 
> late
> 1960s, when the music he championed was beyond decline. Now, some 35 years
> later, every fourth wizened rock star from the right has "discovered" the
> Great American Songbook. But the songs were never really lost, because
> musicians like Mr. Short kept them fresh and alive in the intervening 
> years.
> There is a certain sort of jazz purist who dismissed Mr. Short as a 
> "cabaret"
> artist. Perhaps it was because of the venue where he performed (and the
> carriage trade he attracted). "He was narrowly pegged into the cabaret 
> world,"
> says Mr. Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the Jazz Museum in
> Harlem, "but he was a phenomenal musician." Take Mr. Short's fine piano 
> work --
> an elegant distillation of Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington (spiced with 
> the
> occasional dash of Art Tatum).
> Another big no-no with some jazz critics, Mr. Short treated the words as 
> equal
> to the music. He was at his best singing Cole Porter (another Midwesterner
> turned metropolitan), whose often-complicated lyrics demand precision. 
> When I
> played with Mr. Short late last year, the highlight of the evening was his
> performance of Porter's "Can Can." Mr. Short sang every last one of the 
> song's
> umpteen choruses, a torrent of sly wit. It was hard to tell who was having
> more fun, the audience or Mr. Short.
> Cabaret, jazz, popular song -- the categories don't really matter. Mr. 
> Short
> was a saloon singer, and that's honorific enough. He was midwife to 
> countless
> new romances -- and at the other end of the dramatic arc, a better balm 
> for
> lost love than any twelve-o'clocktail. It's a definition of a life well 
> spent.
> In "Hannah and Her Sisters," Woody Allen's punk-addled date just doesn't 
> get
> it. On the sidewalk outside the Carlyle, Mr. Allen berates her: "You don't
> deserve Cole Porter." One suspects that Bobby Short would have disagreed. 
> With
> his elegant egalitarianism, Mr. Short treated everyone as though they 
> deserved
> Cole Porter. And that was the most gracious gesture of all.
> Mr. Felten is a jazz singer and trombonist in Washington. His most recent 
> CD
> is "Eric Felten Meets the Dek-tette."
> URL for this article:
> http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111153313689786924,00.html

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