It is a rainy afternoon in June, and I am singing for seniors in an assisted living retirement community. Today’s theme is “songs about warm, sunny weather”, and I am hoping that cheerful, upbeat numbers like “Blue Skies”, “Sunny Side of the Street”, and “My Little Grass Shack” will brighten up this dreary day. People sing along, clap, even snap their fingers and smile as the formula works its magic, evoking memories of happy times. After the show, audience members share personal stories and favorite songs with me while I pack up my gear. As a facilitator of human connection through music, I’ve learned a lot from them over the years, especially about the importance of humor, being in the moment, and delivering songs with a lively stage presence.
It all began at an after-hours jam session twenty-five years ago, when I heard a singer belting out “Sentimental Journey” with such carefree abandon that an infectious joy filled the air. Until then I had been dabbling in folk music and a little blues, but the swinging pulse of the guitar and voice was so compelling that in a decisive moment of inspiration I knew this was a musical style worth pursuing.
I soon found a pianist to accompany me as I learned repertoire from the Great American Songbook circa 1930-40, and eventually began singing in local nightclubs. For patter between songs, I chronicled the music’s colorful history with anecdotes gleaned from books, films and record covers. Armed with such tantalizing trivia as Irving Berlin’s real name (Israel Baline), and the first woman to win an Academy Award for lyric writing (Dorothy Fields, in 1936, for “The Way You Look Tonight”), I branched out and started performing themed music programs in libraries, schools and senior centers.
For eight years I worked with a wonderful man named Barrie Vye, who provided not only exceptional piano accompaniment, but patience and solid fatherly advice. A veritable gold mine, he had “a mean left hand”, an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards, and plenty of stories of his own heyday shenanigans. As a teenager, Barrie hung around the jukebox at The Bungalow outside Seattle’s Garfield High School, and once snuck in to hear Anita O’Day at the Triannon Ballroom. During World War Two, he listened to Duke Ellington records over the intercom of a troop ship in the South Pacific.
Together we assembled a program of Big Band Era mega-hits called “What Did You Hear in the War, Daddy?” and pitched it as a duo act to the King County Libraries. We performed twenty-two concerts during “May is Senior Month” that first year, 1998.
Fast forward to 2010. Barrie Vye is now “tickling the ivories” at that great jam session in the sky, and I’ve recently released my fourth CD of jazz standards entitled “Sentimental Journey: Popular Songs From WW II”. Recorded with pianist Hans Brehmer and bassist Larry Holloway, it features a collection of popular songs that once upon a war-time lifted spirits, forged lifelong bonds and boosted morale when nothing else could. The CD cover includes photos of both of my parents in their Navy uniforms.
I still enjoy bringing people together and sharing this wonderful music. With a passion indulged and a dream realized, I am honored to be an ambassador for these classic songs from such a fascinating era of American musical history.
(From an article reprinted from Prime Time Magazine, Oct. 2010)