BootLeg Betty

Michael Feinstein Talks Bette Midler, Song Travels, Jazz, And More…

Michael Feinstein Discusses Collaborating With Jazz At Lincoln Center, NPR, PBS
Jane Levere, Contributor

This spring singer-pianist Michael Feinstein is hosting the second season of the “Jazz and Popular Song” series at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York; this week’s concert explores how popular standards became jazz classics

Feinstein spoke recently about the series, as well as his public television and National Public Radio programs, among other activities.

How do you pick the subjects you’re featuring at Jazz at Lincoln Center?

The idea of the series is the intersection of American popular song and the influence of jazz. There is often a compartmentalization of the two genres. They are, of course, inseparably related. The desire of the folk at Jazz at Lincoln Center was for me to create a series that would broaden perhaps the appeal of jazz to people who like American popular song and vice versa. So my criteria in putting together one of these shows is to try and find a subject, a performer, or a composer or an era or a style that will best lend itself to showing the common roots of American popular song and jazz.

How does the series differ this year from last year?

I think that this year’s series is more sure-footed in that we have a clearer idea of how to present the different aspects of classic popular song and jazz. For example, the Ethel Waters show was for me a perfect example of how we could satisfy two audiences that might be there for different reasons.

What makes this series special, unique?

I think one of the things that makes the series unique is just the overall perspective of the influence of jazz on American popular song from a vocal perspective. The ten-hour series that Ken Burns did on PBS called “Jazz” never mentioned a single American popular song composer other than Duke Ellington. That is a demonstration of how there is such a divide between the classic songwriters and the jazz world. These shows are absolutely unique because they are approaching a perspective that has rarely been examined. The “Sweet and Low Down” show, that we did last year and are again doing this year, the concept of that show is to take a song and to sing it in the way that it was written, if it was a Broadway song to sing it in the way it might have sounded on Broadway, and then to do a swing, jazz interpretation of it. So that’s great fun, to show how malleable a song is. “All the Things You Are” can be sung reverently and straight as a beautiful, emotional love song, which is how I hope I did it, and then Wynton Marsalis did five jazz choruses uptempo on the same tune. That’s the excitement of it, to show what you can do with these songs.

How does this program differ from what you’re doing on public television and NPR?

The series at Jazz at Lincoln Center is focused on the confluence of American popular song and jazz. The PBS series is part reality series–even though it’s very high-brow, public broadcasting reality–in that it is a series of shows that chronicle the parts of my life as a performer, on and off stage; as an archivist, as a collector of artifacts relating to American popular music, and interaction with other people who are also involved in that, meeting those collectors, preserving saving collections, going to archives. I’m chronicled traveling all over America and to England and points beyond in my quest to preserve American popular song. It’s a snapshot of what my life is like, it’s about many aspects of my interest in this music.

The NPR series is called “Song Travels” –they are one-hour shows that are 50% interview and 50% music. It allows me to explore different kinds of music with the guest, and to get more into their brain about how songs have affected them, what they feel about the song in general, what the song means to them, and to explore the very rich world of all permutations of songs through the talent of the guest. In the case of one of the guests, Bette Midler, she does not do interviews very often, but she was willing to do my program because she said that she had never had the opportunity to just sit and talk for an hour about the music that she likes. She talked about Martha Ray, and talked about gospel singers, and talked about Hawaiian music, we played Beyonce, it was a whole cornucopia of her rich perspective of American music.

That show is greatly exciting to me because I never know what direction it is going to go in, and it does involve live performance from the guest, which is daunting for them, because not everybody wants to just come and sing. Some people have said, “I don’t want to be on the show because I’m not comfortable singing a song without multi-tracking and production.”

Are you working on any other projects now?

I’m recording a CD, with Andre Previn at the piano, of Andre’s songs. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, I feel that his songs are wonderful and rich and a lot of them are not very well-known. There are songs for which Andre has written the melody, lyrics are by, among others, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Alan Jay Lerner, Johnny Mercer.

I also have a book coming out in October called “The Gershwins and Me” that Simon and Schuster is publishing; (it is) the third season of the PBS series in the fall.

What do you personally listen to?

I listen to a lot of obscure things. I have a huge collection of studio production disks, disks used in the making of dramatic and musical films from the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s that are the treasure of my collection because they are artifacts of songs that were sometimes cut from films, or songwriters’ demos, or extended versions of things that I listen to a good deal of the time because for me the Hollywood musical was the pinnacle of the presentation of American popular song.

How do you have time to do everything you do?

Life is about planning carefully for me. There are many things that I want to hopefully accomplish before I check out. The wonderful opportunities that have come my way are ones that I don’t want to miss, because I think things happen in cycles, and I’d rather be a little bit more tired and have regrets later, rather than say, “Gosh, I wish I’d done this or that.”

I don’t sleep much. I tend to be very nocturnal. Somebody once said that if you’re born in the evening, you’re a night owl, and that’s probably absurd, but I was born at 6:37 p.m. I’ve never ever been able to get up in the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the “Today Show,” even when I was on it.

A New York-based freelance journalist, I write for many top newspapers, magazines and Web sites worldwide, covering the arts and every aspect of travel–business, leisure and online. I currently contribute to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and Travel & Leisure and its Web site, and have written for, ARTnews, Conde Nast Traveler, Food & Wine and many others. As the name of my blog post, T & E, suggests, I will be writing about travel, the arts and entertainment for

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