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Still Music to the Ears By: John Berlau
Insightmag.com | Monday, June 09, 2003

For his debut album, 19-year-old jazz singer/pianist Peter Cincotti wanted to mix the classic with the modern. So he included on the CD some songs he had cowritten along with some American standards of the twenties, thirties and forties. But there has been an amusing problem with this approach: Some of his younger fans can't tell the old songs from the new.

"My older sister gave the CD to her 23-year-old friend," Cincotti recalls to Insight. "The friend said, 'Oh, I love that song your brother wrote, "Ain't Misbehavin'." I've been humming it all day.'"

"Ain't Misbehavin'," of course, is not one of the songs Cincotti wrote for his self-titled debut album that now is No. 1 on Billboard's jazz charts and has cracked the "Billboard 200" pop-albums chart. It was written in 1929 by the great black lyricist Andy Razaf and by the performer who first made it famous, singer and pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller. But Cincotti says he's glad he could make the song and other timeless American standards new again for his sister's friend and others of her generation. "I was worried about putting "Ain't Misbehavin'" on the record because there are a lot of recordings of it, and how was my arrangement going to be any different?" Cincotti reflects. "But that [reaction by his sister's friend] got me thinking [that] none of the kids my age know this music. It's new to them. ... As much as it's an old kind of music to many people, it's a new kind of music to me and a lot of kids my age."

Cincotti, a versatile pianist who can play in the "cool" jazz style of Errol Garner or the jumping boogie of fifties rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, is part of a phenomenon that has yet to be covered by most of the mainstream press. Go into any record store and you will find that some of the hottest new music is actually old music. One-fifth of the albums among the Barnes & Noble chain's 20 top sellers contain songs from the traditional styles of American jazz and swing. Cincotti's album, which also features original interpretations of the old chestnuts "Comes Love," a 1939 song performed by Billie Holiday, and "You Stepped Out of a Dream," which Nat "King" Cole made famous in 1945, is No. 17. One spot below Cincotti at No. 18 is Michael Buble, a 25-year-old Canadian inspired by Frank Sinatra and backed by a booming big band. His self-titled debut album features swinging takes on the Sinatra classic "Come Fly With Me" and Jerome Kern's romantic "The Way You Look Tonight," first sung by Fred Astaire in the 1935 film Swing Time.

No. 9 on the Barnes & Noble chart is the soundtrack to the movie Chicago, which celebrates the music of the Prohibition era of the twenties and early thirties. And topping the charts is 24-year-old Norah Jones with Come Away With Me, the album that swept the Grammy Awards and now has sold more than 6 million copies. Although "Don't Know Why" is the big radio hit, those who buy the CD also are discovering Jones' tender rendition of "The Nearness of You," a standard the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael cowrote in 1937, making the song nearly three times as old as Jones herself.

Insight readers may remember that this magazine spotlighted Jones as an artist to watch in a cover story last year, citing her among the new crop of "talented musicians who perform great songs" being "marketed by their record companies to a wider pop audience" [see "Music to Live By," May 6, 2002]. This was just after her album came out on a jazz label not known for churning out million-selling pop albums. In that story, Insight noted that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many Americans, young and old, "just couldn't handle the vulgarity and nihilism of today's pop music."

The article covered the success of jazz singer Diana Krall, and noted that her intimate interpretations of the Great American Songbook were resonating with a nation reeling from tragedy.

One year since that story was published, the wounds of Sept. 11 are healing, but musical outlooks appear to have changed permanently. The music industry in general has experienced a continued decline in record sales, concert attendance and radio advertising. Album sales by major artists such as Madonna and Michael Jackson have been woefully disappointing. But the industry largely still seems to be overlooking music quality (or lack of it) as an explanation and blames external factors such as the general economic slowdown and file-sharing programs on the Internet. In hilarious attempts to squeeze every dime out of listeners, the Recording Industry Association of America is trying to force Web servers, universities and businesses to surrender the names of individuals who have downloaded music off the Internet. Meanwhile, no industry honchos seem to have noticed that after producing more patriotic and family-oriented fare the movies seem not to have suffered the same decline.

Meanwhile, the Great American Songbook, as well as the styles of traditional jazz and swing, are experiencing a tremendous resurgence, and not just from new performers. Rock singers such Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Curtis Stigers and Bryan Ferry all have released albums of American standards.

Jones' success at the Grammys was fueled by the word-of-mouth commercial success of her album. But some in the entertainment industry can't get over the shock of Jones' sweet, soft sound beating out that of longtime rocker Bruce Springsteen. They insist artists such as Jones who play the standards are a fluke and a fad, fueled by burnt-out baby boomers tired of sixties and seventies rock. HBO talk-show host Bill Maher dismisses Jones' "Don't Know Why" as "a nice song for middle-aged men to ----- their wives to." Their wives. Imagine that!

But the charts clearly show that Jones and other artists of her type cut across demographic lines and are catching many listeners in their teens and 20s. For several weeks, Jones' Come Away with Me was the No. 1 album on the Billboard Internet charts, which many observers say reflects the buying preferences of teens and young adults.

Herb London, music scholar, professor of humanities at New York University and president of the conservative Hudson Institute, has a personal example of how Jones is turning young people on to standards. London and his 16-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, were listening to Jones' renditions of "The Nearness of You" and "Cold Cold Heart" - a song country legend Hank Williams wrote for himself in the early 1950s that was made a jazz standard after being performed by Dinah Washington. "She [Jaclyn] was saying to me, 'This is terrific music. I really love this new stuff,'" London recalls to Insight. "When I replied, 'This is not new music,' she said, 'What are you talking about?'"

London, author of Decade of Denial, a book panning the pop-culture trends of the 1990s, sees a stark contrast with popular music in the first decade of the millennium. He says artists such as Jones offer a chance to "recapture a generation" for good taste in entertainment. "It's quite remarkable that for a generation that has imbibed music of the worst variety, listening to classics really has a kind of profound effect on them," London says. "What is most surprising, from my point of view, is that they've listened to so much trash that when they hear something worthwhile they say, 'Gee this is wonderful,' but they think it's new and it's novel."

London says Sept. 11 awakened America from the moral depravity of much of popular culture in the 1990s. "I think that 9/11 forced people to consider what is truly important about this nation," he says. "It caused people to consider, 'Why am I a patriot, why do I care about this nation, why is it exceptional?' ... This is an interesting contrast with the nineties. The nineties were a period of denying what is truly idiosyncratic about America. What you had was the elevation of barbarism.

There was this group called N.W.A [an abbreviation for "N-----s With Attitude"], one of the most popular rap-music groups, and if you listen to it, it is the most crass and vile kind of music that not only talks about abusing women, but talks in the most foul language. It did deny what is truly unique about the United States, and what is unique for bourgeois culture or a middle-class culture with a middle-class morality. The fact that people would take a walk on the wild side by buying this kind of music was clearly aberrational. Now we will turn back to the morality of the new century. ... There will be more melodic music, a music to live by that has very appropriate language and certainly has a melody that you want to repeat and that really kind of sticks to the soul."

Cincotti, currently in his second year in the undergraduate liberal-arts program at New York City's Columbia University, agrees that uncertainty about world events can make people search for music with more substance and permanence. "We're living in a world of question, and right now a lot of things are unsure," Cincotti says. "People may be longing for a kind of music that is solid and has substance to it - that is for sure and that's timeless. Music of today comes and goes and is more questionable, as opposed to solid, substantial music that has been around for 70 years and will be around for another 70 years. People may be clinging on to that, because of the war."

Jane Monheit, a 25-year-old jazz and cabaret singer who sold nearly 200,000 copies last year of her album Come Dream With Me, says jazz and pop standards also can offer relief in troubled times. "This music is great for so many reasons, especially right now," Monheit observes to Insight. "It always seems like, whenever there are times of trouble in the world, people turn toward entertainment and these sort of things."

Monheit first gained attention by taking second place in the 1998 Thelonious Monk jazz-vocal competition. Among the judges were Krall and the late (great) jazz singer Joe Williams. With a high, pretty voice that mixes jazz with Broadway-style cabaret, Monheit shows she has matured considerably as a song stylist on her new album, In the Sun, with a smoky, seductive version of Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" and a fast, bouncy romp of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek." And, like Cincotti and Krall, she has discovered that these songs aren't just for her grandparents' generation. "This music is certainly appropriate for everyone," Monheit says. "Everyone can enjoy this. In my own shows now, I see everyone from little, tiny kids to their grandparents. My audiences keep growing younger. It's just a good time for this."

John Nichols, music correspondent for The Nation, a weekly left-wing journal, concedes that music "space has opened for some American standards," but he doesn't see a seismic shift. "Since 9/11, there has been an openness to a softer, more reflective sound," he tells Insight. But "some people have sought out more rebel sounds and things that have been more raucous. Overall, there has been an openness to something that's more reflective. ... But the mix of sounds that have come through is a pretty wild mix. Some of it is going to satisfy conservatives, and some of it is going to really piss them off." Nichols cites the success of the group Coldplay and Sheryl Crow, artists who have criticized President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

Although Coldplay and Crow do promote their politics at their concerts and other forums, the content of their songs and videos tends not to flaunt their views. And there is at least one outspoken antiwar artist even Nichols admits is having a difficult time with sales. After three weeks, Madonna's American Life dropped out of Billboard's top 20 American albums. Smelling trouble, she canceled a video that showed her in war fatigues throwing a grenade at a look-alike of President Bush, but then praised France to a French audience for antiwar views. Nichols insists that Madonna's antiwar sentiments haven't caused the album to bomb. Rather, he says, "Some of the songwriting, in my opinion, is a little self-indulgent. It's a little too much 'I, I, I,' and I'm not sure it quite connects as well."

A music-industry insider, however, argues that Madonna's anti-American views are closely related to the disappointing sales. "Look, she dresses herself up as Che Guevara and puts everything in the context of it's all a record about how terrible America is and how worthless American life is, and we should be surprised that Americans are fed up with that crap?" he says. "This has been an old game that people have played, but I think people are fed up with it. Her schtick is tired."

Unlike patriotic country songs that recently have been successful (see "Antiwar Singers Out of Tune With Public," May 13-26), the American Songbook offers no direct opinion on whether specific political actions such as the war in Iraq are a good thing. But, then again, they don't express opinions against those actions either. And most of the writers of the American Songbook were immigrants or children of immigrants who were imbued with a love of the American way, points out radio commentator Rand Holman. Their songs "celebrate freedom, they celebrate the good life and they celebrate everything that America represents," Holman tells Insight. "Let's put it this way: There was nothing that was unpatriotic, there was nothing that was cynical, there was nothing that was Madonna-esque or Dixie Chicks-esque, where they would be in protest of American policy. Politics in that sense never found its way into music."

Holman, an advance man for Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, has been a longtime conservative radio host in the New York area. But his Rand Holman Show, which he now is looking to syndicate, got a boost two years ago when one of his favorite singers, Keely Smith, was performing in town and joined him as a guest on the program. "The day I got her on my show, the ratings, the phone calls, the e-mails just skyrocketed," Holman recalls. "And from that point on, I commingled politics with celebrities of the music area."

Holman's show has featured Cincotti and other well-known standards performers as guests, but he only asks them about their music. "I rarely asked the celebrities about their political opinions," he says. "If they wanted to volunteer them, that was entirely up to them."

Cincotti wouldn't say how he felt about the war ("My father told me never to talk politics"). Norah Jones hasn't weighed in much on foreign policy either, although she was scheduled to perform at a concert in support of Israel until it was canceled by its sponsor, the Israel Forever Foundation. However, Holman's friend Keely Smith, who is experiencing a career resurgence, is very outspoken. The 75-year-old torch and swing great who performed at John F. Kennedy's inauguration now is a staunch Bush supporter. "I think President Bush is just the best thing that happened to our county, and I'm with him 1,000 percent," she says in an interview with Insight after we caught up with her in New York, where she was performing a three-week gig at the exclusive nightclub Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel. "It was wonderful to watch television and see the Iraqi people being so jubilant and just exploding all over when they were freed, so I don't think for one minute that we made a wrong move."

But patrons at Feinstein's and at her performances at the Atlantic City Hilton and the young audience at her shows at the Los Angeles House of Blues don't hear her political views. They hear her talk about and beautifully sing great songs from "That Old Black Magic" - the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer classic that she originally performed with her late partner and then-husband Louis Prima - to "You Go to My Head." She does, however, often end her shows with her combination of "The House I Live In" and "The Star-Spangled Banner," the last song on her most recent album, Keely Swings Basie-Style With Strings.

Before performing with Prima and Sinatra in Las Vegas, Smith sang with a Navy dance band in her hometown of Norfolk, Va., as a teen-ager during World War II. She would love to perform again on a military base. "I'm for anything that helps our troops and anything that helps our country and our president," she says. Asked about the outbursts of the Dixie Chicks and Madonna, she says, "I don't think entertainers or actors or whoever should be up there doing what some of them are doing. I think they should have more respect."

Smith, who now is a label mate of Cincotti on Concord Records, was nominated for a Grammy in 2002 for her tribute album Keely Sings Sinatra. She currently is at work on a romantic "mood" album in the style of Jackie Gleason's 1950s orchestra. Considered by many to be the last performer of a generation of female greats that included Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald, Smith is an enduring influence on younger musicians.

"I love Keely Smith!" Monheit exclaims. "She's one of my favorite singers of all time. I love that she's still out there doing it. Her voice, her vibrato specifically, is, like, a huge influence on me. I sing 'Old Black Magic' in my show every night, because I love this woman so much."

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