Job Envy: Singer Jane Monheit
'Blame It on My Youth'
By Porter Anderson
NEW YORK -- On a chilly Manhattan Saturday night in March, Jane Monheit is having no trouble staying warm.
The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel is so tightly packed for her last supper concert there that jazz lovers -- many of them already committed Jane-lovers -- have to get up and move their chairs for each other. Waiters struggle to squeeze from table to table. One patron getting up means four or five people scrambling out of the way, napkins flying, tablecloths tugged.
But the man at the center of the long table against the dark-paneled wall is unfazed by this cordial crush. Billy Taylor, jazz composer and host of NPR's "Billy Taylor's Jazz at The Kennedy Center," rarely takes his eyes off Monheit. He's there to tape a feature he's doing about her for Charles Osgood's "Sunday Morning" on CBS.
Somehow Monheit has gotten her wide-ride black skirts past several champagne buckets, reached her pianist, guitarist and bassist, and now is gently sighing a wistful, forlorn intelligence into "Blame It on My Youth."
And it's hard to think of a more apt number for Monheit, a fact not lost on the artist, herself.
"I'm working a lot, I'm supporting myself from my music at 23. That's something I'm proud of -- it's not the easiest thing to accomplish. I'm seeing the world, meeting a lot of wonderful musicians, playing in these beautiful rooms."
The Algonquin's Oak Room, particularly with Monheit in residence, might not look "beautiful" -- more like a can of well dressed human sardines on this night -- but it's a station of the cross on the cabaret and supper-club circuit that supports a jazz career. Like a booking at Carnegie Hall for a classical artist, a round of performances in the Oak Room is a sign of a new talent's arrival.
And Monheit knows how to wrap this room around her like a stole:
If I expected love when we first kissed, blame it on my youth. If only just for you, I did exist, blame it on my youth ... If you were on my mind both night and day, blame it on my youth.
Now, with her second CD, "Come Dream With Me" (N-Coded Music, May) burning a hole in the charts and commanding a formidable position -- in the Top 100 -- on Amazon.com, Monheit says it's all something she's getting used to.
"It feels completely normal now," she says of this jazz-jetting life. Hard to believe if you don't know that this woman expected -- almost planned -- her life this way.
'Never doubted it'
Growing up in Oakdale, Long Island, Monheit heard her parents' Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae albums a lot more clearly than she heard her peers' Limp Bizkit tunes. "I just never doubted it, man," she says. "I could tell I was hip. It was just those other kids who didn't know it. I knew, OK?"
The daughter of a tool supplier and a homemaker -- with a brother who studies guitar at Berkeley School of Music and a grandmother and aunt who sang some opera -- simply "heard jazz everywhere," she says, "the whole time I was growing up. Ella, of course, was the main influence on me."
But her buds could hardly be expected to follow her muse in those early years. "I had a very rocky childhood," she concedes. "For one talent show, I got up with a tape of a Sarah Vaughan arrangement and sang (George Gershwin's) 'Nice Work if You Can Get It.' And nobody clapped. It was that bad."
Once she reached Connetquot High School, Monheit was finding some shelter for her dreams in jazz vocal ensembles built into the curriculum. Eventually, "A whole slew of kids from high school came to see me when I was at the Village Vanguard" -- like the Oak Room, another critical milestone. "I tell you, what got me through was my family and the feeling that I was so much hipper than everybody else."
By then, the Manhattan School of Music's Peter Eldridge was helping her turn her instrument into the silkily controlled soprano it is today. And in 1998, at age 20, when she took second place to then-63-year-old Teri Thornton at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, Monheit was spotted by N-Coded's Carl Griffin and on her way.
Her first CD, "Never Never Land," was out in May 2000 and still sells powerfully enough -- some 60,000 copies -- to make her a walking jazz icon in today's pop-powered world.
And on the final cut of her new CD, "Come Dream With Me," you hear a wheedling little 3-year-old Jane having a go at "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" -- on precisely the pitch the grown-up Jane sings it today.
"My family recorded me a lot when I was singing. Joel Dorn," her producer, "knew that and asked if my mother could make him a tape of some of those old recordings. He called and asked if I could put it on.
"The funny thing is that I didn't realize until we were long finished with the record that both the way I sing it today and then are in the same key. And what I then realized is that that's the key Judy Garland sang the song in, in the movie. When I chose the key for the main version we have on the CD now, I wasn't thinking about any of that, I just chose a key that works for my voice."
Sense memory had done its work. And the little jazz-head from Long Island -- voice teachers had realized early on that she has perfect pitch -- had carried that tone with her for a couple of decades until it was time to cut this year's album.
Building the career
Now -- despite her "Oz" reference in her CD's liner-note acknowledgments, "There's no place like home" -- Monheit stays away from her Manhattan home quite a bit. She, sometimes joined by her drummer-fiance Rick Montalbano, tours and tours and tours. It's the laying-in stage of a brightly promising career.
You track and trek, festival to festival, club to club, interview to interview, getting the fresh face, the lilting voice, the tough-for-some name ("mon-HITE") out there and out there and out there.
Along the way, Monheit says, she's taking some detours.
"'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' was the first song I've ever learned, but I'd never planned to record it at this point. I'd done it live at a concert at Lincoln Center, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald's 'Songbook' recordings. And so it was a special moment in the show. We decided to go ahead and put it on this record because we wanted to capture it while I'm still young."
Not in every single way is it good to be young in this business. Obviously, Monheit has to pay a lot of dues to buy the respect of longtime jazz devotees. Her side men on her recordings are always men of the cloth in jazz terms, heavy hitters the cognoscenti will recognize and sit up for. At the Oak Room, for that matter, Monheit was accompanied by pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist George Mraz and guitarist Rodney Jones.
If anything, it's when she's not singing that Monheit can for a moment reveal what a long road is ahead in terms of stage presence and artistic weight. Her patter between numbers is sometimes so precious, so rehearsed-sounding that you remember, suddenly, that the old soul pumping so much heart into "I'll Be Seeing You" really is just coming up on 24.
And this is hardly considered a career problem. Everyone really will -- and does -- simply blame that on her youth. As soon as she's back into another number, it's perfectly evident to most commentators that Monheit is, as the New York Times' Stephen Holden put it on seeing her at the Oak Room, "the real thing."
There's an adventurer in this artist, too. Not only is she pushing her way into a jazz industry grateful to have a new young hit to help draw sales and attention to a sometimes fading musical form. She's also testing the limits of what that form will let her do.
"I wanted to put the Joni Mitchell tune on this CD, 'A Case of You,' and that's not something some people expect to hear me do. It's been one of my favorite songs for my entire life. My parents were listening to it before I was born. They bought the CD when I was about 12. And that was the end of that -- I've been a Joni fan ever since.
"I considered it for the first record, decided against it, and was really thrilled to do it for the second record, especially with (guitarist and fretless bassist) Richard Bona doing it with me."
Just before our love got lost, you said, 'I am as constant as a Northern Star,' and I said, constant in the darkness? Where's that at? ... I drew a map of Canada, with your face sketched on it twice ... I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.
Monheit is always quick to thank not only her family but also fiance Montalbano. In some cases, she says, the various states of their relationship have helped inform her on the emotions of numbers. "And he's a truly wonderful musician, an incredibly accomplished drummer, very sensitive to playing with a singer. We work together extremely well and were doing that a long time before we were a couple. Obviously when you get to travel with a loved one, it's great. And we're friends with the other band members.
"I tell you, when we travel with our own band and we're on the road," Jane Monheit pauses just a moment for reflection, then: "Well, I can't even believe this is work."
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