By MARILYN LESTER*** The gala opening of the 28th annual Mabel Mercer Foundation (MMF) Cabaret Convention was, as one would expect from its glorious history, a smashing success, kicked off with a superb medley of songs sung by “Marvelous Marilyn Maye.” Hosted by MMF Artistic Director KT Sullivan, the evening featured a roster of singers and musicians that epitomize the grand world of cabaret, and who steadfastly keep the genre alive. (Those performances will, of course, be reviewed and reported elsewhere in print and online.) The evening also saw the presentation of two major awards: The Mabel Mercer Award and The Donald F. Smith Award.
Keeping the genre alive is key to the world of cabaret. Why that’s necessary is perhaps the subject of another column, but keeping cabaret and the American Songbook alive was a driving mission for the late Donald Smith. It was he who founded the MMF and was its Director until his final days, when he asked Sullivan to take over. Of Smith, The Oakland Tribune declared, he was “the man who has done more than anyone else to keep cabaret alive.”
Smith was a force in cabaret for nearly half a century as an impresario and manager. He worked closely with his friend, Mabel Mercer, for over two decades. After she died in April 1984, Smith was moved to found the Mabel Mercer Foundation in her honor, and did so in February 1985. Part of the reason for this action was his objection to obituaries and press that described Mercer as a jazz singer. She was far more than that, and was more appropriately an art singer. Mabel Mercer, born in the United Kingdom, found her way to New York via Paris and established herself as a singer’s singer, and a luminous interpreter of the American Songbook. Her style was parlando, a speaking singing. Her storytelling ability was unsurpassed and her phrasing remarkable. She was a major influence on Frank Sinatra, Barbara Cook and many other artists who recognized her genius.
Fittingly, the gala opening of the Cabaret Convention recognizes talent via the Mabel Mercer Award and the Donald F. Smith Award (underwritten by Adela and Larry Elow). The former award has been long established and has gone to such artists as Maureen McGovern, Amanda McBroom, Jack Jones, Christine Andreas, Karen Mason and Steve Ross. The Donald F. Smith Award was inaugurated in 2012 with Klea Blackhurst as its first recipient. Both acknowledge excellence in the field. This year, the Mabel Mercer Award was known in advance to be designated to Vivian Reed. Reed has long been associated with the Convention and boasts a 40-plus year career on stage and in nightclubs, film and television. It was presented to her at the close of the evening’s show. It was then the performer’s honor to end the first night of the Convention. She did so with her usual dynamism, this time evoking Tina Turner, with a powerful, energetic and kinetic rock-based set of songs.
The Donald F. Smith Award came as a surprise. Carole J. Bufford, closer for Act One, had finished her first song, “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town),” when a spotlight rose on KT Sullivan and she, with grace and perfect timing, caught Bufford before she could launch into her second number. It should be noted that Bufford is a relative newcomer to the cabaret scene, but the eight years since being name a runner-up in the Metropolitan Room’s annual MetroStar singing competition (where guest judges Smith and Sullivan spotted her), she has made quite an impact. The moment of presentation was sweet and charming, and a teary Bufford – a powerful performer with a dynamic show-biz style – sent patrons off for intermission with an evocative “The Man I Love” (written by the Gershwins, whose songs are the repertoire for the second of the four consecutive concert evenings in the series).
But at the end of the day, do these awards really matter? They’re presented without fanfare, fleetingly part of the evening’s succession of talent. Of course, the answer is yes, they do matter, and here’s why. For a genre that finds it necessary to keep itself alive, these two awards, and others that will be presented over the course of the Convention, are powerful tools. They bring focus and attention to the world of cabaret and those who perform in it. On a personal level, the awards are an acknowledgement of a performer’s excellence. They are not only confidence boosters, but the awards represent a confirmation of value. The recipient adds value to the genre and the genre of cabaret is affirmed as worthy – all causes for celebration and perhaps a source of inspiration. Not all awards have the stature of Oscars or Tonys, but they do have deep meaning for presenting organizations and the recipients. So we say in ending, well done, Mabel Mercer Foundation – and congratulations, Vivian Reed and Carole J. Bufford.
See www.MabelMercer.org for more information and tickets (also available for each remaining night this week at the box office). Tickets are $25-$100, with $10 “Rush” tickets for students and MAC members with appropriate ID. See www.jazz.org and www.jalc.org
All shows are at 6 PM at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center on West 60th and Broadway in Manhattan, opposite Columbus Circle.