Such is his living legacy that in an episode of Cheers, Frasier didn't want to take his son to see a children's entertainer and quipped, "I'll wait till he's 25 and able to enjoy Bobby Short instead." Had Frasier waited just a few more years before leaving for Seattle, he'd have been able to take his son to see Bobby Short and His Orchestra in Boston at the chic riverside nightspot Scullers Jazz Club, where the irrepressible pianist/singer will be appearing for three nights in April.
In a career spanning six decades, Short has come a great distance from his modest upbringing in Danville, Illinois. Born in 1924, the second youngest child in a family of ten, Short grew up during the Depression. His father was a miner in Kentucky, his mother a domestic. He recalls in his autobiography, The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, that the parlor was filled with "the ugliest furniture in the world, but somehow it had style." And there was the ebony-finished Walworth upright, on which a four-year-old Bobby Short picked out his first song, Jerome Kern's "Who Stole My Heart Away."
After knocking people out at his first recital at the local Second Baptist Church, the ten-year-old prodigy began playing in saloons to help with the household expenses. Discovered by an agent who clad him in white tails and booked him on a Midwest tour, the young musician was sending home reviews from Variety before he was 12. Exposed to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, Short absorbed the popular music of the day and played it back in his own inimitably honest style. Today, his trademark is the freshness of interpretation he brings to popular standards from the Great American Songbook. As Sidney Zion of the New York Daily News wrote, "Nobody sings Cole Porter like Bobby Short, and nobody sings Duke Ellington better either."
Among the many composers and musicians who influenced Short, Duke Ellington's name is most prominent. Short explains, "In the 1930s, pop music was at its peak. I had so many influences: Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, Mabel Mercer. But more than all the others, there was the Duke. He was a fine piano player, but more than that, there was his character and elegant persona. His seriousness and sophistication were what most impressed me."
Such is his devotion to the Duke that Short founded the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund in order to raise money for a monument to the late composer. The 20-foot-tall statue designed by sculptor Robert Graham (who also sculpted a monument to Charlie Parker in Kansas City) was dedicated in 1997 and placed in the northeast corner of Central Park, tucking itself right into Ellington's Harlem. Short notes, "While on tour in the south of France, [where Short lives half the year] I saw some monuments to American black composers who had become popular in France, and I knew I had to do something for Ellington in his own country."