Oh, Lady, Be Good

AnitaODay 1958


If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.

It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does.  In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:

“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing  the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”

Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.

Sitting Down On The Job: Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor


Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance up a storm without leaving their seats. Nice work if you can get it. Stick with it and see what they do when they finally get off their butts…

Thanks to YouTuber Vladmir Zworkin

Tappin’ Thru Life: Maurice Hines




Yesterday, radio station WBAI 99.5 FM in NY aired my interview with tap-dancing legend, Maurice Hines. Together with his brother Gregory, he re-invented tap dance for modern audiences.

Maurice guested on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over 35 times and had a featured role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club.  The star of several shows on Broadway, he just opened Off-Broadway in a new autobiographical song and dancer called Tappin’ Thru Life. 

In the show, 72 year old Maurice sings, dances and dishes about the greats he’s worked with, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and on and on. I had the pleasure of talking with him in his dressing room a few hours before his Wednesday evening performance.

Click on the grey triangle to hear the warm giving voice of Maurice Hines talking about his life and times.

Everything Old is New Again: NYC Cabaret

What happens to great American songs of yesteryear? Well, they don’t die, no, they become staples of cabaret society.

For years at radio station WBAI, Dave Kenney has been preserving and propagating, through his weekly radio program Everything Old is New Again, what he calls the “Great American Songbook”: those great songs, that were mainly Broadway bound, from the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and so on. It’s a tradition that jazz and cabaret singers have elevated to a whole separate art form, distinct from the legitimate theater.

Last week, Kenney produced and hosted a wonderful cabaret benefit for WBAI listeners at the Metropolitan Room, an intimate and comfortable space in which to host such an event. The talent on display was delightful and happy-making. It was a two-hour master class in the Art of Cabaret. The singers were all veterans of the cabaret and Broadway scenes, and it was fun to watch them cheer each other on.

Performers included KT Sullivan and Jeff Harner, Liz Callaway and her sister Anne Hampton Callaway, Karen Oberlin and Steve Ross, Karen Mason and Paul Rolnick, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, Gabrielle Stravelli and Pat O’Leary. All of them excellent, and all accompanied on the piano by the talented Alex Rybeck, who also composed some of the performers’  songs.

You can see and hear vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli in the YouTube clip above, singing “Goody Goody” at a previous performance. She performed the song at the benefit as well, and her interpretation at the benefit was even sharper and wilder.  She let loose, scat singing and improvising fearlessly, getting to the vindictive core of the song’s lyric:

“So you met someone who
set you back on your heels,
goody goody!
So you met someone and
now you know how it feels,
goody goody!”

I think anyone who heard that performance will think twice about ever crossing Ms. Stravelli. (Only joking, joking, Stravelli!) Afterwards, she said, “What can I say?–I love singing revenge songs–I’m Sicilian!”

Thanks Dave Kenney and all the terrific performers for providing such a Goody Goody time.