My earliest awareness of Barbara was when I was working for Ira Gershwin. I was hired in 1977 to catalog his phonograph records. Among them was Barbara’s Verve LP of songs from the 1957 movie Funny Face. Every day I would play some of the records for Ira, and when we listened to that recording he was very complimentary about her playing. It was fun to listen to her interpretations of Gershwin with one of the authors, and to experience his joy at the way she adapted the melodies for jazz yet still played with great respect for the bones of the work.
She played with such abandon and confidence, and with great personality, taste, style and theatricality. She would often play a sort of preamble or inventive introduction, then state the melody very simply and sparsely before she would go into her variations, building her renditions almost like the way someone would build a brick wall, brick by brick, with this growing intensity. It would creep up on you. She would build to an emotional pitch that I always found deeply satisfying and rich. I never heard her play a single song in which her interpretation didn’t give me an electric jolt. She could play songs that were done to death and make them evergreen, fresh as a daisy. And she wrote some beautiful melodies. On one of her later albums, with Ken Peplowski [2011’s How Long Has This Been Going On?], she wrote a song called “Too Soon,” a beautiful, gentle waltz.
Barbara lived and breathed music, and she loved to talk shop and discuss songs and songwriters. She was a hell of a lot of fun at parties because she didn’t have to be persuaded to play and loved duets. I would play four-hand piano with her and just try to keep up! It was fun to play with her ideas and modulations. She was such a natural. The music flowed from her in a way that brought her such intense pleasure that she never had any issues about music making. She was probably the least neurotic person I’ve ever met.
I remember her frustration when she was let go from the Carlyle Hotel after playing for years [a quarter-century, beginning in 1978] at Bemelmans Bar. She and Bobby Short [who headlined the neighboring Café Carlyle from 1968 to 2004] were such a great duo, and very good friends. Bobby would often come into Bemelmans and they’d toss tunes back and forth. When she was unceremoniously and cruelly dismissed by the Carlyle they lost a lot of business. Tony Bennett said he’d never go in the place. I stopped going. She was a legend and perfect for that room.
Barbara did not have a singing voice that was pretty or smooth. It was a little rough-hewn, but you could say the same thing about Satchmo or Leonard Cohen. As with her playing, her honesty and simplicity combined with the understanding of exactly what she was purveying. Often you can tell if an instrumentalist [knows a song’s lyrics] by the way they will create a phrase, or by what expansion they will choose to do on the melody. She always knew the text and the subtext. Fascinatingly, [in 1953] she played on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet, so clearly Richard Rodgers was a fan of hers, and he was the ultimate stickler for the way people played his songs.
I’m grateful that in her later years she made a number of fine albums. There was a long recording hiatus and then, as a result of her growing following in New York, she resumed. I know all of us who had the opportunity to hear her live on a regular basis will miss her corporeal experience and the atmosphere she created, the smile on her face when she played, and her total immersion in the music. I’ll always have that picture in my mind when I listen to her—the embodiment of the love she had for the music.