More Than a Song: The Music That Integrated America

May 24, 2011

The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center  –  May 17, 18

Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

As part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz & Popular Song series (Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director; Scott Siegel, Supervising Producer; Michael Feinstein, director and host) Michael Feinstein brings us a live version of his popular PBS series from last year, Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook. Cabaret and jazz have always been kissing cousins, but in this edition of the series, “More Than a Song: The Music That Integrated America,” Feinstein makes the case that, indeed, popular music was at the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement from the earliest days of the 20th Century onward.

And what better place to have such a show than the Allen Room, which overlooks Columbus Circle, with Broadway and Tin Pan Alley just to the south and the jazz and blues world to the north? Perhaps not accidentally, Feinstein assembled a singing team of two African-American males (Quentin Earl Darrington, Allan Harris) and two white females (Christiane Noll, Karen Ziemba) to help out with the songs.

Feinstein, himself, opened the show with “Without a Song” (William Rose, Edward Eliscu, Vincent Youmans), offering a plaintive reading the first time through, then moving into a celebratory mood on the reprise. He then took a seat stage left and revealed, in the first of several eye-opening historical tidbits, that the musical the song came from, 1929’s Great Day, was the first Broadway show to feature an integrated cast—and it lasted only four weeks.

With a baritone voice distilled to its purest beauty, Darrington then presented an open and honest take on “Nobody” (Alex Rogers, Bert A. Williams) that was by turns funny and sad. How is this for a lyric in 1906: “So until I get somethin’ from somebody sometime/I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody no time”? In the original show, Abyssinia, the song was sung by co-writer Bert Williams, the first headlining black performer on Broadway.

Harris followed Darrington to the stage and delivered “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” (Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks, Fats Waller). For Harris, every song is a seduction of the audience and this night was no different.

The juxtaposition of Darrington and Harris was a lesson in singing styles. Darrington, a Broadway performer, fully immerses himself in a song, becoming a character; with Harris, a nightclub veteran, the song becomes a part of his personality and gets the Harris treatment. With these two masters, each offers a joy to behold.

Tony-winner and triple-threat Karen Ziemba wowed the crowd with “The Charleston” (Cecil Mack, James P. Johnson), energetically performing the dance while singing and letting her mop top fly. After that display, Feinstein quipped, “I was going to do that!”

Noll was the most uneven of the performers. Although her voice was expectedly strong and lovely, she seemed too cool on the duet with Darrington, “We Kiss in a Shadow” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), and too studied on “I Must Have That Man” (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh). However, she scored with the sassy “A Woman’s Prerogative” (Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen).

The quartet blended nicely on “Supper Time” (Irving Berlin) and in the closing number, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks, Fats Waller). Other highlights were Ziemba’s authoritative “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein) and Harris’s infectious “This is the Life” (Lee Adams, Charles Strouse).

Of all the great moments, though, the most memorable was Darrington’s repressed, simmering rage singing “Ol’ Man River” (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern) from the lip of the stage, sans mic. An extended ovation followed. Given the right role, there has to be a Tony in Darrington’s future.

Feinstein, who seems to be enjoying his increasingly robust voice of late—employing strategic key changes and ending songs with impossibly held belt notes—was most touching when he sat at the piano and nearly whispered “A Hundred Years from Today” (Joe Young, Ned Washington, Victor Young), displaying a vulnerable falsetto. And throughout the evening, he served up wonderful anecdotes and almost pulled focus from his perch on the side of the stage with his elfin excitement at seeing the performances unfold on the stage.

Musical director Tedd Firth led a quartet—Andy Farber on saxophone, Tom Kennedy on bass, Warren Odze on drums, and Firth himself on piano—that contributed exquisite support without once calling attention to itself—exactly what accompaniment should be.

Of all the shows planned for the series, “More Than a Song” is likely the most important in terms of content. Like any great show, it not only informs but entertains. One hopes there is a repeat performance.


About the Author

Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for, and freelances for other publications.