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Jane Monheit: Songs Written To Be Sung

The singer talks about her lifelong passion for the Great American Songbook and why it still matters

Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit

She may not look like it, but singer Jane Monheit is truly an old soul. Though she’s only 32, she’s already released eight albums as a leader and performed countless shows all over the world, but more importantly she’s immersed herself in the work of the Great American Songbook writers, most of who died before she was born. On her new album Home on Emarcy, Monheit covers Rodgers and Hart, Dietz and Schwartz and other notable craftsmen of standards. And looking back over her discography, there seem to be few songwriting greats whom she hasn’t covered.

So we thought it would be interesting to ask Monheit about several of the great songwriters of the 20th Century, including a few from her own lifetime. Despite having to juggle the demands of an upcoming tour and a two-year-old son, Monheit was very game for the exercise. In fact, it seems as if she’s been preparing for this assignment her whole life.

“In the past I always performed a lot of the cabaret rooms,” Monheit explains. “And it used to be when I started out as a jazz vocalist that you were expected to go in there with a show or theme. It’s not like that any more. Now I go into the cabaret room and do my normal show. But back then I would do these songwriter shows and I would go back and take a look at the music of Arthur Schwartz or whoever. I did an Arthur Schwartz show, a Harold Arlen show and several others. I would go back and check out huge lists of all the songs they’d written and look for some things that were obscure. I grew up with these guys. I know a lot about them and their songs and the musicals and the films, because it was a big part of my childhood. I’m from New York, so I saw a lot of Broadway shows and we always tried to catch the revivals because they’re the best part. Plus, I did musical theater. I was the girl who starred in all the shows in high school and did some community theater on Long Island. I actually miss it terribly. I’d love to do musical theater again.”

Monheit has also done her homework in the years since her childhood. “A lot of these songs I’m not only familiar with them in jazz terms, but I also know the original versions, the original changes, the original verses and where they came from. Almost all of them were written for musicals. That’s almost what defines the Great American Songbook.”

She makes her band do homework too. “One of the things that we do in my band is that when we decide to do a song, we go back and we check out the original changes. We don’t always use them. I for instance like to use the Bill Evans changes for tunes or we’ll check out the Miles Davis changes. The reharmonization of these tunes is often beautiful. But we will go back to the beginning, because a lot of the times, there are total gems as far as chords that are lost. They’ve been smoothed over by jazz changes for so many years, altered for better soloing. We go back and find what was originally there.”

Here then are Monheit’s thoughts on not only many of the Great American Songbook composers but also a few more modern songwriters whom she both admires and covers (in parens are a few of the songs she’s recorded over the years).

Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz (“A Shine On Your Shoes”; “Haunted Heart”; “Dancing in the Dark”)

I sing a lot of their music. I really love it. It’s funny to me that people will talk about the Great American Songbook and the first ones they mention are Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Porter and so on. And Schwartz and Dietz are never mentioned in those first few and that bothers me, because their work was incredible. A lot of singers do their work. John Pizzarelli, for example. We’re also friends of Jonathon [radio host and son of Arthur Schwartz]. Maybe that’s part of the reason we’ve connected with him over the years-because we sing a lot of his dad’s music. Jonathon has always been a great supporter of mine on the radio. He helped to break me, just by playing my music.

I did an Arthur Schwartz show a few years ago at the Algonquin Hotel. There are some really magical tunes. There are a lot that I want to do that I haven’t gotten to yet. “I See Your Face Before Me.” The new album opens with a Schwartz/Dietz song, “Shine on Your Shoes,” and the arrangement is from the Schwartz show that I’ve been meaning to put back in the repertoire for years. We never recorded it and we never played it outside of that run. It’s a perfect opener for the record. It’s great to do live, because it’s one of those tunes that always gets a nice reaction from the crowd because it’s bright and fun and I’m scatting and there’s a bass feature. For some reason, whenever I do bass features, people always seem to really like them. Probably because my bassist Neal Miner is a genius.

“The Bandwagon” was probably my absolute favorite musical. Because I come from theater, I’ve always been a big fan of the backstage musical with the show within a show theme. That whole “the performers claw their way to the top” thing. I love that movie because of that.

Rodgers and Hart (“Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You”; “It Never Entered My Mind”)

Just like with a lot of these composers, I’ve done a lot of Rodgers and Hart tunes live but not necessarily recorded them. “Bewitched” is one tune that I’ve sung live literally thousands and thousands of times to a point where people know and expect that I’m going to do it. Unfortunately, I don’t do all of the lyrics like Ella did and Rufus Wainwright does. I never thought I was old enough before. But now I’ve had a baby, so everybody knows I’ve had sex before. Maybe one day I’ll get into those lyrics!

I really love the Rodgers and Hart songs because, rather than the Rodgers and Hammerstein material, the tunes lend themselves more to jazz vocal interpretations. That’s not true in every case, but a lot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff was true musical theater. There are major songs from all of those musicals that can be beautifully interpreted as jazz and I do a lot of them, like “It Might As Well Be Spring” or “People Say We’re in Love” or “This Gentleman is a Dope.” But Lorenz Hart had a serious gift for writing sad wistful lyrics. That’s something I really like to get into. They’re sad, but they’re not so completely entrenched in darkness. Like with “It Never Entered My Mind,” it’s the same thing. You picture a person looking sadly out of a window and ruminating on this thing in their mind, without giving in to this horrible darkness. It’s a level of sadness, thought and reflection that I like when singing lyrics. And also he wrote some charming warm-hearted lyrics that weren’t over-the-top happy, like the lyrics to “Manhattan.” There was more subtlety in his lyric writing. They weren’t black and white. He got into the gray areas a lot.

Irving Berlin (“Isn’t It a Lovely Day”; “Cheek to Cheek”)

What a great story. He’s a Russian-Jewish immigrant. His first name was originally Israel. And he comes here and becomes known for writing some of the most patriotic songs ever, like “God Bless America.” I’ve been the great “God Bless America” girl at 4th of July gigs. I get way into it. But he wrote tons of songs about American life-about paying your taxes or the Army. He was so into being an American. I don’t know if people realize that he wasn’t born here. Like many of the immigrants he changed his name to be more acceptable in American society. His music was so All-American, but it’s almost like he created it or defined it from something that came out of his own head. He captured this thing that the American public loved to hear. He captured this spirit of our country at that time in his writing in this amazing way.

I sing “Cheek to Cheek” in every show. It’s one of the songs I’ve recorded that I’m lucky enough that people want to hear it all the time. Everybody loves that song, thanks to Fred and Ginger. Or Ella and Louie. I could listen to that [Fitzgerald/Armstrong duet] every day, all day, forever. Our version features a really great arrangement by my pianist [Michael Kanan]. I don’t do a lot of songs that are on the “up” side. I really stick to medium tempos. And that’s a brighter one that we do and people respond to that. They’re really ready for it at some point in the show.

Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow”; “The Eagle and Me”)

It’s the same thing with “Over the Rainbow.” I do it in every show. Can you believe that they tried to cut that song out of the movie? The story goes, and who knows if it’s true, that they thought Judy their star shouldn’t be seen in a barnyard. Can you imagine how different popular song would be without that song? Everybody loves that tune. That tune has broken so many singers. It broke me. It broke Eva Cassidy. It broke Katherine McPhee from American Idol; she sang that song and everybody went crazy. Nikki Yanofsky is making a big splash with that song now. That song is special for everyone in a different way. There are a million ways to interpret it. Every night I sing it differently depending on the mood I’m in.

I used to do “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead” sometimes because it’s really a great jazz tune. The bridge is really fun. It’s an up one that’s fun for the guys in the band. We did an Arlen show at the Carlyle years ago and that was our encore. The guys like blowing over it.

And I’ve recorded “The Eagle and Me” which is not a particularly popular tune. The only other version I know is from Shirley Horn’s Live at Vine Street, a truly amazing record. I’m sure our version is reminiscent of that soulful look. The lyrics lend themselves to that.

Another one of his tunes that has been a big one for me is “Hit the Road to Dreamland.” I just love that song and now it’s become my little boy’s favorite. He makes me play that tune on the piano a thousand times a day while he plays his drum. It’s good for my piano skills, which are lacking [laughing].

Mack Gordon/Harry Warren (“This Is Always”)

Harry Warren is another good example [of a success story for a European immigrant]. His real name is this gorgeous long Italian name [“Salvatore Antonio Guaragna”]. His parents came here from Italy and he was one of eleven children. These guys that were behind this great American art form so many of them weren’t even born here. They were living the American dream. And it’s all about New York and the melting pot. I am sure they were bringing musical influences from their cultures.

Sammy Cahn (“Please Be Kind”; “The Christmas Waltz”)

He must have had great stories, hanging out with the Rat Pack guys, because all those songs were sung by those guys, like “Love and Marriage” and “Tender Trap.” I don’t know a ton about those songs because I haven’t gotten into them. He was more a writer of pop tunes at the time. The songwriters I stick to from that time tend to be writing more for theater or film.

Jerome Kern (“Look for the Silver Lining”)

Cole Porter (“In the Still of the Night”; “Why Can’t You Behave”; “Do I Love You”)

Kern is interesting because he was really great in the popular song form but at the same time he could write high musical theater, like “Showboat,” which is like classical musical theater almost like an operetta. A song like “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Then there are these tunes that cross the boundary so beautifully like “All the Things You Are.” You can take that tune and sing it in a very classical way with a big orchestra and have it be this gorgeous theater-ey thing. And then you take another look at that tune and it’s practically a textbook for jazz musicians learning to solo with the harmonic progression. That’s a major tune for anybody who’s learning to play jazz and deal with the harmony. His music really went in both directions very well. You look at someone like Porter, he was writing for musical theater, but it was clearly still jazz. You look at all the music from “Anything Goes” and it’s inflected with all of this jazz harmony and phrasing. You can tell the man was clearly influenced by jazz. But Kern was coming from the much more classical place and the songs just translated well.

Burt Bacharach/Hal David (“This Girl’s In Love With You”)

In addition to “This Girl’s In Love With You,” I did “Alfie” as a bonus cut to one of my records. I love Bacharach. I love his music. It really sounds like it was coming out of the ’60s, like movie music from that time. I’m sure I’ll do more of it in the future. I love Diana Krall’s version of “The Look of Love.” It’s such a beautifully paired thing of her style with that tune. Burt’s song form was personal to him and it was very much inspired by the time. You really hear the ’60s in his music. You can hear the look of those films in his music. His style is such a specific thing. His songs later on are different, but still very powerful, like “That’s What Friends Are For,” one of those beautiful iconic pop tunes. Look who it brought together for that tune – four of the greatest pop singers of all time.

Henry Mancini (“Moon River”)

I love “Moon River.” It’s just one of those beautiful songs. It’s one of those songs that people have decided is corny, which I think is total bull. I have such a mission about that-songs that people have decided are corny, but are beautifully structured pieces of music. “The Girl from Ipanema” is another example of that. There have been maybe some not so great versions of it over the years. But “Moon River” I remember it was one of those songs we just picked apart in theory class. I remember sitting there in class trying not to cry, because the song was so beautiful and we’re analyzing the form and harmonies and stuff. In my mind though, you can’t top Audrey Hepburn and the guitar.

A tune like that has this incredibly simple lyric and simple message and a simple melody. It’s almost like a lullaby. And it’s a waltz. There’s something about a waltz. The version I did is a little fancy but it came from this very simple thing. My pianist and I have been playing it as duet for many years and we recorded that way. Later on we decided to wrap the strings around it and Jorge Calandrelli wrote this string chart based on the duet that we had already recorded. We still play it as a duet in the live show.

Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Waters of March”; “Caminhos Cruzados”; “Dindi”; others)

I heard a lot of Jobim growing up. My mom loved Brazilian music. In college I got really into it, because I moved to the city when I was seventeen and there was this big Brazilian music scene there that was hand-in-hand with the jazz scene. So many people play both genres and most jazz musicians have some sort of connection with Brazilian music, since Stan Getz in the ’60s. Bossa nova is deeply influenced by jazz and vice versa. The great thing about Jobim is that his songs were written to be sung. I sing all of them in the original key. They were written for these beautiful mellow alto female voices. They suit us girls really well. Also, I like to sing them in the original Portuguese because there are a lot of either bad translations or non-translations with separate English lyrics. I love the language. It’s gorgeous.

Ivan Lins (“Rio de Maio”; “Once I Walked in the Sun”; “Comecar de Novo”; others)

My love for Ivan Lins absolutely comes out of Jobim, because Ivan was greatly influenced by Jobim and also by the Great American Songbook. Ivan worships those guys. He was born in Boston in the United States. He loves standards and writes some of his tunes in that style, though I don’t know if he’s going to record any of them. He keeps telling me he’s going to send me some. I think I can safely say that Ivan Lins is my favorite songwriter of all time.

I’ve done so many side projects over the years and two of them have been duets with Ivan on his albums, one of which is just coming out right now. I wrote the lyrics for it too and so that’s one of the proudest moments of my life, to be co-writing with Ivan. I play a lot of his tunes live. Ivan has been a very important part of my life. We’ve toured together. We’ve played live together. I pretty much worship the ground he walks on. I’m not even embarrassed about it any more. The way that I feel about his music is so intense. It was introduced to me by Peter Eldridge. I didn’t know Ivan’s music before Peter. Peter is the only voice teacher I’ve ever had in college. In the very first lesson I had with him, he gave me a couple of Ivan’s tunes. He gave me “Comecar de Novo” and “Love Dance.” I will never forget as long as I live hearing those tunes for the first time. My mind was blown. I thought, “What is this music and why didn’t I know it before? How could seventeen years of my life have gone by without me hearing this music?” It’s been his mad love affair [with his music] ever since. He’s also one of the most gorgeous men alive.

Modern rock/pop writers with a jazz sensibility, including Stevie Wonder (“Overjoyed”); Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”); Paul Simon (“I Do It For Your Love”)

Everybody loves Stevie. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t love Stevie. We also used to do “Send Her Your Love” with “Overjoyed.” I’ve done Joni Mitchell, I’ve done Paul Simon, I’ve covered a Fiona Apple song, I’ve covered Corrine Bailey Rae. I really just like the tunes. A great song is a great song. Like with the new album, it’s all standards and then there’s a Larry Goldings tune that’s brand new. It doesn’t matter to me that that’s different, because the song is to me just as brilliantly written and beautiful as the songs that it’s next to. I’ve always worked that way. I think a lot of singers do. Singers like Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall have opened the pathway for us to take beautiful songs from wherever we want. There are just too many great songs in the world to get all narrow-minded about the genre.

It’s the harmonic structure, being sophisticated and beautiful. I love pop harmony, like in Stevie Wonder’s writing. There are some pop songwriters whom I love but whom I haven’t covered yet, but probably will eventually, like Billy Joel or Donald Fagen. I’m from Long Island and so it’s built in that you love Billy Joel. It’s part of a culture growing up there, but he’s also a brilliant songwriter. I can’t always define why I love the songs I love, because music has been part of my life from the very beginning. It’s like another limb or like breathing. It’s not so much a craft that I took on and decided to learn and work with and make a career of it. I did all the homework and got the education and learned the science of the music, and all the tools that I need to do the job are there. It’s hard for me to define my love for this music and why I choose the songs I choose.

Those songs I choose now from today’s songwriters I think of as modern standards. They’re covered again and again because they’re amazing. More than anybody, Ivan Lins’ music will last forever. And definitely Stevie Wonder. And definitely Paul Simon. And Joni Mitchell. Who could ever let go of these songs? And the Beatles. Paul McCartney’s music will never go away and it never should, because the man is a genius. I really want to cover “For No One.” There’s a cover version of that song by an Irish bluegrass singer named Maura O’Connell that I love. I haven’t covered it yet because I’m afraid that I would just want to do her version and there’s no point in doing that. And with “She’s Leaving Home” there’s a specific thing that I want to do and I’m waiting for the right time.

How do you deal with the weight or gravitas of previous performances by legends, like the Ella Fitzgerald’s famous songbooks?

I grew up with those Ella songbooks and those versions are ingrained in my head, but at a certain point you have to not let it scare you. You can’t just go and sing note for note what she did. You just don’t do that. It was done by her and there’s no topping it so don’t do it. When you choose a tune, it has to mean something personal to you because your interpretation matters.

Do you have to connect personally to the lyrics?

When I was younger, because I was young and everyone was so suspicious of my youth – “Why is she doing this?” or “How could she possibly know what she’s doing?” There was so much of that talk when I was coming up. Now there are so many young jazz singers and nobody gives them any flack. You can be 12 and make a jazz record. But when I was 22 and I released my first record, it seemed like all hell broke loose. I was very concerned that the standards I chose for myself were appropriate for my life experiences. And meaningful to me. There’s no reason to sing a standard if it’s not meaningful to you because there are a thousand versions that are always going to be better than yours whether the song means something to you or not. So make sure it does. Make sure you’re telling the truth. Be sincere. That’s why we’re doing this.

Because I’m ten years older now, a married woman with a child, I’ve lived. I feel more comfortable with playing characters from time to time. For instance, the song “I’ll Be Around” by Alec Wilder on the new record. You look at the lyric and it’s this woman and there’s this man that she’s probably been with on and off for a long time and he’s left her yet again. And she says, “It’s OK, I love you and I’ll be here when you’re finished with this, whoever this broad is…I’ll be here waiting for you.” Please, I would never do that. I would never be that girl. But I can understand where this woman is coming from. It’s interesting for me to get inside that lyric and play that character and be that person for a minute. I loved doing theater and playing roles and I feel like it’s OK to do that in songs sometimes. On my last record, I recorded “Something Cool” a song made famous by June Christy. It’s not a woman that I’ve been in my life. To play that character and get insider her and be her for a minute is very interesting to me. It’s just another facet of who I like to be as an entertainer and a musician. To interpret a lyric that isn’t necessarily a life experience, to become this character, to use the improvisations and choice of counter-melody to further illustrate the lyrics that are outside of my personal experience is very interesting to me.

Originally Published