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Spotlight Cabaret: Ella At 100

The cabaret community mourns the passing of one of it's champion mainstays for 27 years. Stu Hamstra passed away on April 13 after a long illness. He had been living in Miami, Florida for the last several years after decades in New York. Through the years, he was publisher and editor of his folksy, well-known magazine/blog Cabaret Hotline (print edition) and Cabaret Hotline Online. The site became a must for cabaret lovers and performers worldwide to keep up with announcements and news about their beloved cabaret community. Stu enthusiastically promoted endless new talent and supported rising stars as well as legendary artists'. His always chatty, newsy Hotline blog will be missed.

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[avatar user=”John Hoglund” size=”96″ align=”left”] John Hoglund, Critic[/avatar]

“Everybody wants to know about my style and how it came about.

It’s no big secret. It’s the way I feel”. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald photo by Frank Falcon

It’s Ella Fitgerald’s centennial. She influenced more than a generation of singers and musicians. The lady called the “Queen of Jazz” or “The First Lady of Song” would have turned 100 this year. Her bounty is unmatched. Among her musical gifts, Ella was an exceptionally well-rounded musician, a pristine vocalist and impeccable improviser. She was jazz. There have been many first ladies of this or that but Ella was an original, clarion-voiced swing singer in a league of her own. She drew with ease from the ubiquitous canon of the Great American Songbook and shaped creative visions of countless tunes written by top songwriters’ of the day like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Duke Ellington.

Her story is inspiring and goes back to 1933 where she sang in a few Manhattan dives after her move from Newport News, Virginia. She even sang on the streets of Harlem. The painfully shy girl made a nervous singing debut at the age of seventeen in November 1934 at one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She intended to go on as a dancer but was so intimidated by a local dance group that she opted to sing instead. Influenced by her singing idol Connee Boswell, she sang “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection”. She won the $25 first prize. Management nixed her one-week engagement (which was part of the prize) due to her disheveled appearance. By 1935, she sang with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at the Harlem Opera House for a week where she met drummer and band leader Chuck Webb who happened to be looking for a girl singer. He had reservations about signing her because of her unkempt look and gawky presence. After a week long engagement at Yale, the band and Ella got some attention and landed at the famed Savoy Ballroom. Ella recorded some hits with the band including “ Mr. Paganini (If You Can’t Sing It You’ll Have To Swing It)” by Sam Coslow. In 1938, she recorded “A Tisket, A Tasket” (a swinging lullaby she co-wrote) which won international acclaim and became her calling card. She followed this up with the similar “I Found My Yellow Basket” later that year. This diamond in the rough was now a star. After Webb’s untimely death in 1939, the band was renamed Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. Between 1935 and 1942, Ella recorded 150 songs with the band. Not all of them were memorable. But, “Lady Ella” had been born. She went on to work and record with Benny Goodman and his orchestra for years and emerged as the first lady of jazz with an international career that would span seven decades.

Ella set the bar high with her perfect pitch, impeccable enunciation and intonation. She made it all look easy (which it isn’t) and joined the lofty ranks of Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Ecstine, Mel Torme’, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Collectively, they all respected Ella Fitzgerald as the reigning queen of jazz. She left an epic legacy. Today’s torchbearers honor her gift and know they have a lot to live up to.


Michael Feinstein – Photo Joe Martinez

Speaking of torchbearers, Michael Feinstein along with the Tedd Firth Big Band will present two exceptional evenings at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room saluting Ella Fitzgerald with Ella On My Mind on June 7th and 8th. Special guests include rising jazz star Nicole Henry, who has been referred to as “this generation’s first lady of jazz” by the Huffington Post, multi-award winning South African jazz vocalist whose taken the jazz world by storm, Vuyo Sotashe and celebrated Tony winner Jesse Mueller (Beautiful).

Ella Fitzgerald left more than just a lasting musical impact on the 20th century, she left a legacy like no other and a void that shows no sign of being matched. And that, incidentally, is the key to saluting this most relevant of singing artists’ from the last century. Singers’ would be wise to take note and not attempt to “copy” Ella’s sound with her effortless swing/scat style and seamless musicianship. Salute Ella but stay true to who you are. Be an original.
Once upon a time, the shy girl from Newport News hit New York and entered a talent contest in Harlem. The rest is history. Predictably, Ella showcases have been popping up in cabaret showcases all over town. Likely, they will long after her centennial.

Ann Hampton Callaway Photo Bill Westmoreland

Recently, Ann Hampton Callaway offered a loving and wistful tribute called The Ella Century with a week of shows at Birdland. The brilliant, fast-rising Australian jazz pianist Matt Baker was at the piano leading the exceptional band, Ms. Callaway soared with fluent scat forays and fluent interpretations; some based on her Ella show of a few seasons ago. It was a blissful evening by one of today’s greats who crossed over from cabaret to the world of jazz in a breakthrough show at The Ballroom in the mid-90s.This run at Birdland was followed by the sublime Jane Monheit who also paid homage through her smoky interpretations of Ella’s songs. Presumably and appropriately, there will be more Ella honors over the year in the jazz rooms. Like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald left such a lasting musical endowment that it will forever be revered by the older set, those new to her and those just discovering her greatness.


The Ella tributes are not limited to the major jazz emporiums either. Don’t Tell Mama, which has offered an impressive lineup, recently presented popular cabaret singer/entrepreneur Sue Matsuki who reprised a version of her Ella show from a few years ago, added some surprises and terrific guests. It was part of her monthly series of of shows called “Coming Home To Mama”. “Ella & Me” with Gregory Toroian at the piano, Jay Leonhart on bass and Ron Tierno on drums comprising her steamy band of pros. It was a full tilt success. Too, the lady made it throughly entertaining and fun. The monthly series features special guests in each show. For “Ella & Me,” her guests were cabaret favorites: Cynthia Crane, Frank Dain, Maria Ottavia and Marcus Simeone.

Opening with excellent, bouncy treatments of “Accentuate The Positive” (Arlen-Mercer) and “All The Things You Are” (Hammerstein ll – Kern), Matsuki was in exceptional voice and totally at ease with this material. Few people in cabaret are as comfortable engaging an audience than this affable singer. Wisely, she didn’t load the show with ongoing patter about milestones from Ella’s life. Instead, she threw in enough tasty tidbits to land with the revved-up audience.

Ms. Matsuki has never professed to be a true jazz singer. She is a jazz stylist of the finest order who knows her special strengths. Over the years, she has grown from an effective, sweet-voiced singer who didn’t rely on the vocal gymnastics of some big belters into today’s very confident singer whose interpretive savvy is well defined with flare and a solid style that neophytes can learn from. If this were still the age of big band singers, no doubt Matsuki would be up there with the likes of Helen Forrest and girl singers from that golden era.

Cleverly, she presented her four guests back to back (it’s not easy to figure out a running order when there’s more that two guests). Cabaret mainstay Cynthia Crane at 81, brought her lived-in experience and smoky voice to a dark as night, angst-ridden, “Black Coffee” (Webster-Burke) from 1938. It was a focused, blues dirge that simmered – and almost stopped the show with a sustained ovation. Frank Dain of Cabaret Scenes Magazine, removed his editing cap and offered a beautiful, well-crafted “Night and Day” (Cole Porter) that was beautiful and echoed a Sinatra influence in his mode that grabbed the crowd. Mezzo Maria Ottavia lowered her key on a warmly engaging “Come Rain Or Come Shine” (Mercer-Arlen) that effectively showed a different side than most are used to. Singing with a throat infection, Marcus Simeone bravely offered a cautiously delivered “You’ll Never Know” (Gordon-Warren) and managed a raspy “Miss Otis Regrets” (Porter) joined by Matsuki who took the high notes in another crowd pleaser.

The terrific show moved quickly with never a dull moment. More highlights from Matsuki included: the rarity “Too Young For the Blues” (Meyer-Jones), a lighthearted “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (Fitzgerald-Feldman/Alexander) and a highlight tackling a fun romp lifted from Ella’s Live in Berlin album where she forgets the lyric to her encore, “Mack The Knife” (Weill-Brecht-Blitzstein) and spontaneously inserts her own silly, on-the-spot words without once interrupting the song to everyone’s delight. Matsuki deserves serious credit for taking on such a musical snafu and pulling it off with great finesse.

Marcus Simone Photo by: Maryann Lopinto

With all due respect to Sam Smith, you haven’t heard anyone dig as insistently into the marrow of “Lay Me Down” until you’ve heard Marcus Simeone tear into it in Blue the dynamic new duo show with guitarist Sean Harkness running on selective Sundays at Don’t Tell Mama through July 23.

Sean Harkness  Photo by Taki

Directed with articulate insight by Lina Koutrakos, Simeone, and Harkness unleash a sprawling, stylistic fusion of pop/jazz and blues that resists categories. It is spellbinding through some heartfelt, soaring musicianship that had many in tears. Several moments were similar in emotional heft in this reflective and ironically humorous show.
After a languid opening of “Rainy Days and Mondays” (Nichols-Van Heusen) that segued into a gutsy “Blue Side” (Lasley-Willis), the tone was set as Simeone recalled how the show came together after a tragic loss. Many of his followers are aware that Mr. Simeone recently lost his longtime partner after a lengthy illness. Rather than cancel the engagement and following Koutrakos’s sage advice, they made some changes and underpinned the truth as the core (hence the title) in a mixed set with lighthearted turns (even managing to chide the seven stages of grief) in a show that’s now receiving a lot of buzz around town.

Without giving anything away, “Lay Me Down” is only one of several songs in the new show that open up and become raw, emotional monologues in song. Simeone’s delivery and unique tenor are in great shape, and he gave an extra boost to some American classics that showed a more focused side to this one of a kind vocalist with one of the most original voices around whose multi-octave wattage electrifies. Aside from such impressive vocal prowess, he is, above all, an exceptional interpreter of a lyric. Too, paired with Sean Harkness’s inventive, melodic improvisations and mind-boggling jazz riffs, they left the crowd in awe throughout the hour.

Working with Simeone, allows Harkness the perfect vehicle for his signature understated drive, jazz invention and sly charm that is compelling. Both are gifted musicians and are two of the most respected artists’ on the scene today. Simeone, who is a lyric’s best friend, caressed imperishable blues gems that spanned the decades from 1930’s“Mood Indigo” (Ellington-Brigard) to the 1946 “Angel Eyes” (Brent-Dennis), and soothed it with newer greats like a breezy “Caught Up In the Rapture” from 1986. All were given deep, mellow treatments with a silken lilt that riveted against Harknes’s flawless instrumental support and silky solo riffs. Their duet on the 1967 soul classic, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” (Hayes-Porter) channeled some wailing blues that turned into a philosophical mantra deployed on a spiritual journey of longing that was a serious highlight. A less showy treatment was applied to Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” from Follies which was given Simeone’s own introspective spin that eschewed gratuitous drama. This song about obsession, that is sung in the show by a mature woman, was given a talk-singing approach that was interesting.
Of course, the emotionally-charged show stopper came with “Lay Me Down”which capped the show. The original song and video by Smith are about the funeral of a lover. Simeone emotes this like a bereft preacher at a burial. Phrases like “No words can explain, the way that I am missing you” and “… you told me not to cry when you are gone…” are heartbreaking. In the small room, with so many aware of the grief he was experiencing, it was shattering with an emotional brilliance that demonstrated why this singing star, who put his whole career on hold to care for a crippled partner who was dying, deserves to move on to bigger stages.

Collectively, Harkness and Simeone are two of today’s most respected musical artists’. Unlike Simeone’s exuberant persona, Harkness is reserved with clever, understated quips that only enhance his buoyant partner’s in a way that complements the duo. They’re a perfect commercial match in a show that can make waves beyond cabaret.
Not enough can be said about the artistry of Sean Harkness. He belongs in a league with legends like George Benson, Bill Frisell and Reinholdt Django. He’s that good. His richly multi-layered licks are awesome in their execution on a superbly restrained “When Sunny Gets Blue” from 1956 (Fisher-Segal) and “My Favorite Things” (Rodgers-Hammerstein ll) to his own brilliant “Spring Holiday”, the man’s talent knows no bounds. Seeing both together, letting loose, on the same stage iis a stroke of booking genius. Each has shared the stage with many excellent partners over the years. However, this overdue union proves to be a hands down winner in a must see show.
Blue: An Evening of Sean Harkness & Marcus Simeone runs at Don’t Tell Mama on Sundays, May 28, June 18 and July 23.

(Full Disclosure: I knows Sean and am friendly with Marcus whom I have rarely written about. However, this show is so exceptional and powerful, I felt it was professionally justified. This applies to any other acquaintance or friend in the cabaret arena. After more than 30 years of reviewing, etc., I have come to know many other performers from celebrities to newcomers as do most other reviewers. I feel that coming to know an artist after many years, should not preclude me from covering them on occasion.)


Sheree Sano at Dont Tell Mama

Sheree Sano at Don’t Tell Mama Piano Bar: The Lady Is A Vamp

Sheree Sano has a life worth singing about aside from her talents as a songwriter and singer. And that’s just what’s she’s doing these days from 5:00 to 9:00 on Fridays and Sundays at Don’t Tell Mama where she holds court from behind the piano. Whether creating her own spin on gentle background moods, Broadway tunes or some old fashioned rock and roll, Sano knows her stuff. Regulars love her and she bowled them over showing how it’s done last year with definitive takes on “Something Wonderful” among other gems at the club’s Next Big Act vocal competition where she was a finalist. The lady knows how to create a pin-dropper mood and hold an audience in her hand. She also knows as much about phrasing as Sinatra did. This is also evidenced live or on her superb CDs with many great songs such as “On the Street Where You Live”, “Night And Day”, “Somewhere”, “Piano Man” and her own “My Rock”. Her repertoire is expansive and filled with eclectic styles. A jazz-tinged, underrated style is her signature. Those in the know are sure of one thing, Sheree Sano is one of Manhattan’s hidden treasures who’s in an elite league with popular greats like Buddy Barnes and Beri Blair who once ruled Restaurant Row. All had their own uniqueness that made them so special on the piano room circuit and each could hush a room or just plain rock it when called for. Like Marie Blake and others from

an era we will never see again, Sheree Sano is classy, relevant and leaves a formidable impression to savor and remember. Catch her on Fridays and Sundays at Don’t Tell Mama from 5:00 to 9:00.

Stu Hamstra

The cabaret community mourns the passing of one of it’s champion mainstays for 27 years. Stu Hamstra passed away on April 13 after a long illness. He had been living in Miami, Florida for the last several years after decades in New York. Through the years, he was publisher and editor of his folksy, well-known magazine/blog Cabaret Hotline (print edition) and Cabaret Hotline Online. The site became a must for cabaret lovers and performers worldwide to keep up with announcements and news about their beloved cabaret community. Stu enthusiastically promoted endless new talent and supported rising stars as well as legendary artists’. His always chatty, newsy Hotline blog will be missed.

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