Night #4 of the Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention – the Success of Teamwork

Debbi Whiting (L) with 2014 Margaret Whiting Award winner, Natalie Douglas (R)

By MARILYN LESTER**** Closing out a tremendous four days of cabaret, Klea Blackurst shepherded a night devoted to the music of Hoagy Carmichael and Richard Whiting to a gala close. As a finale, it couldn’t have been better – with superior talent and two well-deserved awards presented. Sixteen-year-old Joie Bianco was the recipient of the Julie Wilson Award, while Josephine Sanges was honored by the Margaret Whiting Award, presented to her by Margaret’s daughter (and Richard Whiting’s granddaughter), Debbi Bush Whiting. The rest we’ll leave to the various reviewers on the scene to recount, but suffice it to say the evening was grand. Here are some closing thoughts.

Looking back over four nights of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 28th Cabaret Convention, we salute four first-rate productions of complex logistics. What an immense effort it was, incredibly well executed by a handful of people of the Foundation. Hats off to Artistic Director KT Sullivan, Managing Director Rick Meadows, Director Alyce Finell and Associate Director Jason Martin for a flawless series of evenings in one of New York City’s premiere venues, Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Kudos, too, to all of the folks at JALC for the superb job of hosting the Convention, especially to Nick Adler, Associate House Manager extraordinaire, spouse of singer-educator Corinna Sowers Adler, and one of our own. All of this coordination, of course, is a collaboration which couldn’t be successfully accomplished without some very fine teamwork.

Teamwork is a byword of what we do in the cabaret community. There are any number of ways in which collaborative efforts underpin each and every performance. Taking it back to the source, the very act of producing a song is an inspired and seemingly mystical work that happens between a composer and a lyricist. The two men feted on this last night of the Convention, Hoagy Carmichael and Richard Whiting, are perfect examples of such teamwork. These gents wrote with a number of terrific wordsmiths, but a common link between them was the genius lyricist Johnny Mercer. Their collective output constitutes some of the most glorious pages of the American Songbook – the timeless numbers we continue to honor in concert halls and clubs. (A footnote about Whiting, who died at age 46: Who knows how many more wonderful songs he would have written had but lived longer. Even though his output was prodigious, it stopped short of the volume produced by his contemporaries – another reason there’s great value in what the Mabel Mercer Foundation does. It’s important to keep the work of all contributors to the Songbook front and center, beyond the best-known). 

Add to the composers and lyricists who create the work, arrangers who give each song a special point of view and help keep the music fresh, interesting and enduring. Those arrangers are often the music directors who collaborate with the singers who’ve carefully chosen the work they’ll perform, and whose process of selecting the material and interpreting it also keeps the music evergreen. Here’s a great example using Richard Whiting’s work with Gus Kahn, entitled “A Day Away from Town.” This piece was a trunk song. Music Director Hubert “Tex” Arnold completed it and arranged it a few years ago. Celia Berk was the first to sing it and Carol Woods the first to record it. It was sung by Todd Murray on this closing night. Same song, but different in execution as three very talented artists and their pianists interpreted it. Another layer of teamwork comes in via the choice of instrumentation employed to accompany the work. Add a reed to a standard rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, for example, and there’s a different sound quality and overall presentation. Piano only, bass only, guitar only – these options color the delivery. When Tammy McCann sang “Star Dust” near the close of Act One, all the elements of collaboration came into play. The great music of Hoagy Carmichael, with the words of Mitchell Parish, as arranged and played by Jon Weber, backed by Saadi Zain on bass and a string quartet, with McCann’s voicings, resulted in sublimity.

The musicians who ably played over the four nights of the Cabaret Convention deserve a collective mention. Unlike the jazz idiom, where players get their chance to shine in solos or with a group, cabaret and pop musicians often don’t get the opportunity. Yet, their backing of the vocals is an essential element of the final product. As music directors/pianists came and went with the various vocalists of the Convention, it was pleasing to see so many of them we’ve come to know in the clubs and to observe their individual styles of playing. In addition to the stalwart timekeepers, the bassists and the drummer/percussionists. Convention-goers also enjoyed musicians playing the synth, guitar, violin, cello, viola, vibraphone, fournier, electric bass, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet. Ultimately, when an audience member enters the club, concert hall or auditorium to attend a show, there’s an expectation the chosen entertainment will be professional and satisfying. Most folks probably don’t consider all that goes into making a show, and that’s as it should be. Entertainment should be magical – a fait accompli of the wondrous. So, to all who make such enchantment happen, a mighty and heartfelt thank you.