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Short on Music, Long on Charm

John Amodeo speaks with the legendary BOBBY SHORT about his beginnings, influences, and upcoming performance at Scullers Jazz Club. logo
Bobby Short
When one conjures up the image of the quintessential high-society New York City nightclub, it would be nearly impossible not to picture a tuxedoed Bobby Short sitting at a gleaming grand piano. Such a place does exist of course, in the Café Carlyle on the Upper East Side, where surrounded by the legendary murals the even more legendary Bobby Short has reigned for more than 32 seasons. His effervescent style is synonymous with New York City chic, and a visit to the Carlyle is a must on the tourist track.

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."

Mabel Mercer also became a meaningful influence. Short's career took a major leap forward in 1968 when he appeared at Town Hall in New York City with Mercer, who was by then a cabaret icon. In that same year, Short was to get his first engagement at the Cafe Carlyle, where he has performed every year since. About Mercer Short says, "There was an intelligence about what she did, rare in a nightclub singer in those days. She influenced many singers: Sylvia Syms, Barbara Cook, Lena Horne. She had come to the U.S. in the 1930s, like many European performers, to escape the war. She played nightclubs in the late '30s and early '40s because that was all she thought she could get. Performers played anywhere they could in those days."

During his enduring and illustrious career, Short has also performed at the White House, regaling the administrations of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton with his uniquely sophisticated style. Over the years, reviewers have not stinted on superlatives. Recently Stephen Holden from The New York Times described, "When Mr. Short lights a musical match, he casts a spell that infuses the tiny Cafe Carlyle with the exuberance of a private party at which everyone present shares his sense of the preciousness of the moment and of life's fleeting pleasures." Yet, in 1997, Whitney Ballie of The New Yorker observed that Short "has been edging steadily away from his jolly, shouting Cole Porter mode to being a kind of jazz singer who likes to perform slow, late-night husky-voiced versions of 'Body and Soul.'"

To the latter, Short counters with: "Critics can be shallow sometimes in their evaluation of a performer. Yes, as I've gotten older. I'd like to think that I've grown more intense, more philosophical, more knowing. But nothing is more boring than sitting through an hour of heartbreak and misery. I am aware of the downside of life, but more than that, I am aware of my role as an entertainer. People come to see me to be entertained, to escape from their problems."

In a gesture that further counters Ballie's criticism, Short has expanded his trio to a nine-piece band that now includes three saxophones, trumpet and trombone. He will be bringing this lively ensemble with him for his show at Scullers. When asked to describe what his Boston show will be like, he responds, "I don't like to label a show. I generally just put some songs together that I think will work for an audience and for me."

And whether he offers an ebullient "From This Moment On," sung with reckless abandon, or an intensely sung "I Concentrate On You," it is clear that Short will never dwell on the maudlin. The philosophy he shares with his audience remains most closely aligned with the Dorothy Fields' lyric where, in the face of misfortune, you just "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again." He confesses, "I'm a naturally giddy person. I have an extended sense of humor, and I like to laugh. I think laughing is best thing you can do for yourself."

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