“Free and easy” – cabaret and jazz singers

The latest New Yorker has a great piece by Michael Schulman about Marilyn Maye, an American chanteuse now celebrating her 91st birthday.

Singing in a cabaret or nightclub is a particularly intimate form of musical theater performance, and it requires the singer to have especially strong skills of communication. Schulman describes a master class in which Maye encourages her students to sing directly to the audience:

[S]he interprets the Great American Songbook with an unfussy warmth that feels transported from a less ironic age. “I’m a little different animal than a lot of performers,” she said the other day. “I sing to you, not for you.”

Cabaret singers choose material to which they feel they have a strong personal connection, and present those songs in a way that feels like a conversation or even a confession. A hand-held microphone offers the performer the option of using an intimate sound without sacrificing audibility. 

Exercises like speaking the lyrics of the song as a monologue or paraphrasing the text in your own words help the cabaret singer build the quality of Authenticity that is so essential to success in this idiom. At the end of the article, Schulman describes Maye performing for her students.

The piano started, and Maye launched into the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune “Getting to Know You,” singing in a soothing near-whisper. When she got to the line “Getting to feel free and easy,” she stopped herself. “It isn’t ‘Getting-to-feel-free-and-easy,’ ” she instructed. “No. ‘Getting to feel free’ ”—inhale—“ ‘and easy.’ See, there are two thoughts there: free and easy.”

Recently, D’Arcy and I saw a performance by an up-and-coming jazz singer named Veronica Swift. Singing jazz in a club has a lot in common with cabaret singing, since the successful jazz singer also relies on direct audience address and personalization of the material. However, a jazz singer is more likely to incorporate displays of musical virtuosity in her performance, and Swift’s set featured inventive arrangements, up-tempo scatting and intricate “vocalises” (original lyrics fitted to intricate improvised melodies). What made the evening a standout for me, though, was the close attention she paid to the lyric. Her delivery incorporated strong diction and phrasing, as well as choices of focus and gesture that brought clarity and variety to her performance. It was as SAVI a jazz set as I’ve ever seen.

In the parlance of the stage, we talk about “delivering” a performance and “putting over” a lyric, words that suggest that a song is an experience to be imparted to the listener. Marilyn Maye is a mature artist in her nineties, while Veronica Swift is in her twenties, but despite their generational differences, they share a strong commitment to singing as an act of communication.