As is true for many fans of vocal jazz, I first became aware of Jane Monheit when she burst onto the jazz scene over 15 years ago after wowing the judges and crowds at the Thelonious Monk Competition. As her star rose in the ensuing years, Jane was rapturously received by audiences and critics. At the same time, some skeptics wondered aloud how—or, indeed, if—someone as young as Jane (she made her first album at 20 years old) and (gasp!) as attractive as Jane could really be a true jazz singer.
Amidst the flurry of all that attention, which I imagine must have been overwhelming, Jane coolly went about her business, touring and recording virtually nonstop. Today, with eleven solo albums to her credit, any debate has long since ceased: Jane is unquestionably one of the foremost voices in jazz.
Jane is also a highly collaborative artist, and an enthusiastic supporter of other singers. During her year-long residency at Birdland, where she hosted a weekly jazz party, I had the immense pleasure of sharing the stage with Jane for a duet of “Corcovado.” More recently, she made a cameo with DUCHESS, joining us onstage at the Jazz Standard for a lovely version of “Que Sera, Sera.”
Jane Monheit is a class act, a nice person, and she happens to be hilarious (if you’re not following her on Twitter, you really should). She was kind enough to take time out of her touring schedule to answer a few questions for my blog. Thank you, Jane!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I grew up singing, among musicians, hearing music every day. I literally never even considered a career outside of singing! It was just a question of genre, since I was surrounded by so many different kinds of music at home. I think deep down I always knew it would be jazz, though.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Most naturally….that’s probably just my actual sound. I’ve always believed in singing in the most natural way, as opposed to cultivating a sound that seems to match a certain genre or trend. Our simplest, most sincere voices tell the most truth, I think. Most challenging….that would be just dealing with the daily pressures of this business. Growing a thick skin. Knowing when to say no. I’ve always been an overly sensitive person, and show business can be pretty harrowing if you let certain aspects of it get to you. I am far better at dealing with this now, at 38, than I was in the beginning!!
How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
It has to be a gut-punch. I have to have no choice. If you choose to sing a standard, a song that has been done a thousand times, and done by legends and icons…you’d better have a reason, and a good one! It needs to be personal. It needs to be true love.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
Oh I have no idea!!!! I’d have most likely gone into musical theater. Still singing, of course!!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Once, when I was twenty and had just placed second in the Monk Competition, Wayne Shorter came up to me and said, “It’s all about reconnaissance.” I dont think, back then, that I listened quite closely enough. I understand now what he meant.
I’m a full-on crazy cat lady. I live for horror films and novels. (And naps.) I’m a vegetarian. I have the sense of humor of a fourteen year old boy and my ability to curse is the stuff of legend [Ed. note: Gurl, I feel you.]. I’m watching South Park in my pajamas as I type this. I am not a grown-up!!!
Jane Monheit will be back at Birdland this Saturday, January 16, performing music from the Ella Fitzgerald songbook. Keep an eye out for her next album, also a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald, produced by Nicholas Payton!