Fiona-Jane Weston talks to award-winning New York and international jazz cabaret artist Billy Stritch about the art of cabaret in general and his show at the Crazy Coqs, London: I’ve Got Your Number – The Jazz of Cy Coleman.
Billy Stritch has been performing as a piano player since very young, when he was considered a prodigy. However, he knew from the start that the classical route was never going to be right for him, it was “too disciplined, too much practice! I saw other children stuck in small rooms practising several hours a day, and that’s no life. That’s no fun!”
By the age of eight he was picking up tunes by ear, and by ten he stood out as a young talent. The recognition continued throughout high school, where others excelled in sport etc, while he gained popularity and status through his music.
And yet, his tastes certainly did not coincide with his peers. While they were getting into heavy metal and, being based in Texas, country and western, he was “the weird one”, enjoying Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole (his grandmother gave him an album): “It was this music, the Great American Songbook, that really resonated with me, and where I knew I could bring my talent to.”
Given the burgeoning interest in cabaret in London, and the current debate about how it’s defined, I asked him what the term ‘cabaret’ meant to him, and what he saw as the most important elements.
He pointed out that the arguments are not new, and he has been hearing them for more than 30 years, but for him: “Cabaret is any place where there is an intimacy and immediacy with the audience. This can embrace both musicians and vaudeville and speciality acts. It’s not really about the style. For me, it’s about the venues. Once a venue seats more than 200, it’s really not cabaret any more… and yet, Liza Minnelli (for whom he plays regularly) tells stories through songs with a very theatrical style, which can also be called cabaret, though she performs in very large arenas, so it’s hard to answer.”
We talked about some of the difficulties of performing life, such as rejection and emotional and financial insecurity, and he was open and generous in his comments.
“Unlike a lot of my actor friends, I don’t have to face the issue of rejection often. They are always putting themselves out there at auditions and I can’t see how that could get any easier! For myself, I am unique in what I do, and so people either want to hire me, or not.”
He has learned to live with financial uncertainty, and not to worry too much about it. “In November, I’ll be looking at my calendar and it will appear pretty empty, but then things seem to happen and things come in. Between shows, writing arrangements and accompanying other artists, there always seems to be enough. It’s never steady. There are times when it’s crazy, and times when things are not so flush, and you have to plan for that and manage your money for those times, but this is never going to change. I can’t afford to retire, but why would I want to? I love what I’m doing.”
With regard to emotional insecurity, his answer is equally sang-froid. “This also never ends. Each time I do a new show, I have to sell myself all over again – to new venues, new cities and new people who may be aware of you, but not be very familiar with what you do. It’s not always pleasant, and not my favourite part of it, but very famous people also have to do that, to keep selling themselves. It’s just part of it, and I do what I have to. The bottom line is I feel just so lucky and fortunate to have a talent and that I can do something I love.”
Stritch has performed several times in London, both as Minnelli’s accompanist and as part of a vocal group called Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. They performed an eclectic mix of jazz, Broadway and comic material at Pizza On the Park and The Ritz, and he has always loved coming here.
His show about Cy Coleman is at the Crazy Coqs, a venue he feels suits his style perfectly, being small and intimate and where he can see the faces of his audience. After the vocal group broke up, he moved to New York where Minnelli introduced him to Jule Styne, Cy Coleman and other great composers (he has enjoyed a collaboration with Minnelli for 22 years). Coleman became something of a mentor to Stritch, inviting him to spend afternoons at his East Side home, playing songs to one another and discussing music.
“I have always loved Broadway shows and Cy was the jazziest of the Broadway composers, which suited my talent very well.” Coleman also wrote a number of pop songs in the 60s, such as ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ and ‘Witchcraft’, as well as show tunes that crossed over into becoming standards, for example, ‘Hey, Look Me Over’ from the 1960 musical Wildcat and ‘I’ve Got Your Number’ from Little Me (1962). All these numbers and shows have lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. Of course Coleman’s other musicals also include Sweet Charity, City of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies and The Life.
Coleman wrote right up into the 1990s and until his death in 2004, but Stritch’s show will concentrate mainly on the works the composer produced in the earlier part of his career in the 50s and 60s, which have a definite jazz feel, and where Stritch feels he can best pay tribute. He has a good relationship with Coleman’s publishers and has gained access to some unpublished and unrecorded works, so there are some surprises as well as the standards. He does not follow a strict chronological order, nor does he like to give too much explanation, preferring to let the songs speak for themselves.
* Fiona-Jane Weston on seeing Billy Stritch – I’ve Got Your Number – The Jazz of Cy Coleman at the Crazy Coqs, London: This show is every bit as good as promised. Much of the programme is new to most of the audience, not least because some of it is Coleman’s unpublished work. Billy Stritch also pays great respect to the lyricists, of whom Carolyn Leigh is the most featured, and interprets them in such as way that every nuance and double entendre is teased out, sometimes directly, sometimes subtly. It is hard to pick out stand-out items in such a universally solid programme, but my personal favourites are the crisp, yet touching humour of ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’, the lazy and aching Peggy Lee/Coleman song ‘(I’m) In Love Again’, featuring a superb bass solo by Dave Olney, and another Lee lyric, ‘That’s My Style’.