Liz Smith: Blow That Jazz Trumpet

main“SOME WOMEN choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you it doesn’t love you anymore!”

A great quote from Lady Gaga, although she is too young to realize your career can wake up and tell you it doesn’t love you anymore.

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THERE’S a documentary making the rounds titled “The Girls in the Band.” This tells the stories of women’s dreams and the hard choices they made, back when those choices were really hard.

the_girls_in_the_band_poster_a_pRight now, the film, directed by Judy Chaikin, is being offered by the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center. (It has won a number of prestigious film festival awards.)

This is a story about jazz and its aftermath — rock, rap and whatever we have now. It is an extraordinary history lesson, about music, women, and how the latter — Caucasian, African-American, Chinese and every other variety of woman — were stigmatized and ruled against and kept out of the early history of jazz.

There is pride, but more than a touch of sadness in the stories told by old-timers and new-timers about how men have dominated the American musical venues, sidelining talented female musicians. Why? Because these women didn’t want to get up in front of the band in a pretty dress and sing. They wanted to bang it out on the trumpet, the trombone, and drums. But piano — genteel piano — was maybe okay. Sexism and racism abounded except for a rare occasional success like Ina Ray Hutton.

“The Girls In the Band” examines how some of the women finally broke through. For many it was too late, rock and roll lessened the importance of the jazz scene as a whole. Some of the women who tell their tales are Geri Allen, Jane Ira Bloom, Clora Bryant, Viola Smith, Peggy Gilbert, Carline Ray, etc. They are, each one, impressive and important to the history of music. This is a hugely entertaining, and enlightening tale. We are treated finally to the recognized talents of Marian McPartland, age 95.

I sat with the gifted Tommy Tune for this premiere last week along with a gala crowd that included Hearst’s Frank Bennack, Pam Fiori and Colt Givner, Paulette Washington, Gillian and Sylvester Miniter, Mike Greene, Nancy Kissock, Peter Gelb of the Met Opera, Del Bryant of BMI, Linda Moran,prexy of the songwriters Hall of Fame, Alan and Arlene Alda, Peter Brown, Chris Lowell, Adrienne Arsht, and I’m sure a missed a few.

Tickets are available here.

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I WANT to cite a longtime friend Ann Ziff, who is the chair at the Met. She is vice chair of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, on the board at Carnegie Hall and founder and patron of many worthy charities. It is Ann who made the Met’s entire Wagner cycle possible. She also hosted this jazz for women party as well. And here I thought she was just another pretty face.

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“THERE’S SOMETHING about this theater. I just love it. I’m surprised I’ve never played here before.”

“You have.”
“I have? When?”
“2006.”
“Ha! Better than 1806!”

lizasideSo went some banter between Liza Minnelli and her press guy, Scott Gorenstein, after Liza’s terrific show at the State Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Liza was performing at a special 25th annual benefit gala, which keeps the grand old theater up and running and attracting big names. (25 years ago, the State had become a run-down porn palace, on the verge of being demolished.) It now provides education and outreach programs along with all that entertainment.

As for Miss Minnelli, she was at the very top of her current form, vibrant and soulful — vamping and camping and giving her usual 150%. Onstage, under the lights, watching her move, it’s hard to believe she has ever heard the word hip replacement — and more than once! — along with a battery of other physical ailments that dancers are prone to. The Oscar/Emmy/Tony and Grammy winner did a lot of the old faves, along with some lesser known songs from her last album, “Confessions,” plus several Charles Aznavour songs — especially striking on “What Makes a Man a Man?” And her rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with vocal assist by Billy Stritch, was superb.

Liza banged out “Cabaret” and “New York, New York” with blistering, determined vigor. But those giant notes at the end can be elusive. Not that anybody cares, as Liza actually stopped her musicians at one point and said, “I’m just gonna do this on my own, okay?” And she did. After “New York, New York,” she laughed and said, “That’s it for all the songs with big notes!”

Liza still takes dancing and singing lessons. The former helps her remain nimble, the latter she has wisely used to work on the deep, husky middle and low range of her voice. And when she displays that voice, she is actually a better, more involved and involving singer than in her youth. It is an impressive, spine-tingly sound. She has not become a stagnant artist. She still looks for new material, she clearly prefers to stay within her range, but she knows fans would riot if she didn’t sing certain songs. (Although being a benefit this was not quite a “Liza” crowd. They were enthusiastic, but not rabid. Sensing this, she joked, “You know, you can go out and have dinner, I won’t be offended.”)

BACKSTAGE, SHE greeted fans such as TCM’s Robert Osborne — whom she encouraged to take a bow from the audience, lauding his contributions to film appreciation and preservation. She was relaxed, amusing, sharp, looked fresh, even after her rigors, and apparently pleased with the way everything had gone. There was none of that wild tension that can inhabit a dressing room when something has gone wrong and the star is unhappy. The staff is then unhappy. The bodyguards are unhappy. And well-intentioned visitors want to flee instantly!

Miss Minnelli continues her endless touring. Poughkeepsie is next. She remains relentlessly upbeat and determined, dammit, that she will never, ever “go like Elsie!”

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This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 5/14/13

One comment so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    Brava Liza Minnelli she looks like a survivor and keeps on going. I was happy to see she included Charles Aznavour’s music which I love. My favorite is “SHE” which I always dedicate to Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Just think that song could have been written for her. In some video tributes to our Dame it was used and is one of the best. God Bless Liza as she LIVES with PASSION. That would make Dame Elizabeth smile and her Mama Judy so proud!