There is old saying that goes, "If you don't have a gig on New Year's Eve, you aren't a real musician."
While the veracity of that statement is definitely suspect, it is true that Valentine's Day is to jazz singers what New Year's Eve is to instrumentalists. A typical romantic Valentine's Day date is more likely to include a chanteuse warbling standards than a hard rock band. Consequentially I can only remember only one Valentine's Day in twenty years in which I was not working.
This year I had a Valentine's Day gig which I had booked no less than a year in advance. I also turned down a nice offer to perform at the Lindy Exchange and two last-minute offers to sing background at restaurants, so despite the dismal economy, it is clear that cutting out romance is not really an option.
Of course I am not saying I didn't notice a change: my concert was fairly full but not sold out, whereas last year, men were offering $100 bribes, literally crying that if they didn't get tickets, their girlfriend/wife would murder them and I would have their blood on my hands.
This concert is an all-request concert, so we have our work cut out for us. In anticipation, I log some cardio so that my lungs can sustain a night a powerhouse balladry. The format is that the audience writes down requests before the show and the basket of requests is given to me 10 minutes before curtain. It is a ballsy thing to do, but we have done this for several years now. People love it, and when I was in the audience for an all-request Richard Thompson concert, I had a ball.
My band members are crackerjacks and we have been playing together for a long time so I'm not worried, but I can tell the crew is very nervous for us. During sound check, we work on some tunes that I think people will request and tackle a few of the "early bird" requests from the staff. "I Say a Little Prayer " is way harder than it seems because of all the little extra 2/4 bars Burt Bacharach likes to throw in. We run through "Dream a Little Dream" and some others just in case.
After lights and sound check, we settle in for our meal of roast chicken, potato salad, Acme bread, butter, salad, blackberries, brownies and madelaines. Then I head backstage to change into my Diva Duds.
We start the concert on time and everything is going along swimmingly. I receive a request for "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" by a woman turning 94 years old that day. Fortunately I manage to remember the lyrics because of those "follow the bouncing ball" sing-a-along cartoons that aired on Saturday mornings. I sing "You Are My Sunshine" with a Dixieland patina, much to the delight of the requesters who thought they would stump me with that one for sure.
I publicly ignore the request for "Brick House" and inform all the "Stormy Weather" and "Cry Me A River" requesters that this is "Kim Nalley Sings Songs of Love" Valentine's Day concert, not the "Songs of Bitterness and Regret" concert. An hour flies by and before the intermission I announce that I will accept more requests in writing. The crew put the basket back out.
When the basket is delivered, we are astonished to find a long note that says, "Get on with the jazz numbers already. Cut the gimmicks and just sing!"
The note also includes praise for my version of "Fever" (which bassist Michael Zisman reminds us all is a "gimmick" tune as well) and a request for "I Don't Know Enough about You." My pianist on this gig, Tammy Hall, suggests that we should dedicate the rest of the evening to him and do all Carpenters tunes.
I am more hurt than anything. One of the reasons that I got out of the club business is because I am too thin-skinned. As a singer, I really care about making people feel good. Although some jazz musicians play only for themselves or each other, I like to give to the audience and do what they like as well. I don't find entertainment and art to be mutually exclusive characteristics. I could have been on a romantic long weekend with my man for Valentine's, but instead, here I am, all "to my wife Tina, love Greg," smooth and warm after dark — radio station KKIM, singing your favorite L-O-V-E songs — and someone out there in the darkness isn't happy! I am perturbed.
When I come back on stage, I sing one tune and then read the note out loud. There are some gasps in the audience. I then say, "That is funny, I thought I was singing?" There is applause and I pause, then continue, "When 'Hello Dolly' made it to number 1, many people derided Louis Armstrong for performing a pop song. Louis Armstrong famously answered, 'Its not the tune, it's how you play it that makes it jazz.' Other than Jazz at Pearl's, I have had no profession other than singing jazz. I've been doing it for a living for over 20 years. I live the life. I doubt that anything that comes out of mouth can be considered anything other than jazz."
When I finish my concert, I dread having to go into the lobby, but it's part of the job description to shake hands, sign CDs, and say hello to everyone. I keep expecting to see the person that wrote that note, but he never appears. A few people ask incredulously if someone really wrote such mean note and shake their heads in sympathy. One person notes that although he knew the songs, he wasn't familiar with any of the arrangements, so he figured it had to be jazz. When everyone leaves, I settle up the finances and return backstage.
Backstage, a little bird near the sound booth tells us that some people thought I wasn't actually doing requests, but merely picking slips of paper out of the basket for show, and in actuality had preworked the set out. They felt that no one could know all of those tunes.
The band just looks at each other and laughs. Not only did they know all the tunes, but they could transpose them in almost any key… on the spot. They are true jazz musicians of the highest caliber!
I stopped adding tunes to my jazz songlist when it reached 3,000. I have no idea how many songs I know, but on Valentine's Day I can generally predict what tunes people will ask for. There will be Robert Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a Stevie Wonder request, maybe a doo-wop classic, but by and large the requests will be jazz standards.
Vocal jazz is THE language of love and romance. As time goes by, I doubt couples will ever stop wanting to hear jazz standards on Valentine's Day. And I will be there to sing them.