To paraphrase Ira Gershwin, it’s very clear that the Great American Songbook is here to stay.
With familiar names like “Stormy Weather,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Stardust,” “Summertime,” and “Moon River,” there’s no comprehensive catalog of the pop standards, mostly written for musical theater and movies, that have been performed and recorded over and over again by everyone from Miles Davis to Rod Stewart. There’s not even consensus on the time frame of when they were written. Critic Alec Wilder proposed 1900 to 1950 as convenient bookends on the genre. Others say the era came to an end with the rise of rock ’n’ roll.
Still others, like singer-pianist-archivist Michael Feinstein, say it never ended.
“In the 1960s and ’70s there was an incredible bloom of new inspiration,” Feinstein said in a recent interview. “Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Williams, Elton John, Lennon-McCartney … and I believe there are songs being created today.
“It’s time that determines it.”
Feinstein is perhaps the most qualified person to speak on the subject. While he’s often called an “archivist,” “anthropologist” might be a better word. The founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation, he has for more than 40 years been interpreting the works of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and the dozens of other composers and lyricists who have contributed to the treasure house of songs, while also keeping its legacy thriving for the generations to come.
Feinstein will open the 58th season of the Grand Teton Music Festival Wednesday with a set of some of his favorites — or his favorites of the moment — with his longtime trio.
“I’ll be doing a whole mix of standards from many different eras,” the inveterate performer said. “My show is always very interactive … I’ll be taking requests, telling stories, putting things in contexts.”
Feinstein grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and was attracted to the piano at age 5. After he took lessons for a few months his mother allowed him to pursue his musical interests according to own natural inclinations and he proved an adept learner by ear.
“I’ve always had a fascination with this classic music, which was old when I was born,” Feinstein, 62, said of his favorite style. “I’ve always had this connection. It grew into a desire to collect music, artifacts, orchestrations and other components.”
He was playing weddings and other such events by the time he was 13, and he gigged around at area piano bars for a few years after high school. Then, at age 20, he said he listened to “a very insistent voice intuitively telling [him] to move to” Los Angeles.
“It would have made more sense to go to New York” — the more typical destination for a hungry young performer of Broadway repertoire — “but I followed that interior voice.”
That turned out to be a good move. Within his first year there he met June Gale, a singer-actress who was the widow of pianist-composer-personality Oscar Levant and a friend of none other than Ira Gershwin.
“I don’t know if it was luck,” Feinstein said of his fortuitous encounters. “I always sought these people out. I was interested in old songwriters, and there weren’t a lot of other people banging down the door to meet them. At the age of 20 I spoke their language.”
Gershwin hired Feinstein to organize his trove of phonograph records, a job that lasted six years and extended to sheet music, rare recordings and other material. While performing those duties he got to know one of Gershwin’s neighbors, singer Rosemary Clooney.
His career as a performer began to take off in the 1980s and within a few years he became known nationally as a cabaret crooner. Today he plays some 200 shows a year and has appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl and Buckingham Palace.
In 1987 he recorded the album “Pure Gershwin,” the first in a discography that has since grown to nearly 40 titles covering the music of Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Andre Previn, Frank Sinatra and many others. While he has made several more albums of the Gershwins’ music, volumes that include well-known favorites as well as more obscure songs, he also continues to explore American popular music, helping to define the repertoire. He founded the Great American Songbook Foundation in 2007 to continue to spread the gospel through education, scholarships and competitions. A museum is in the works, a place to preserve and display sheet music, arrangements, artifacts and ephemera.
“One of the things that keeps American standards alive is that they can be interpreted an infinite number of ways,” he said, recalling how tickled he was when he heard heavy metal band Twisted Sister’s cover of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Is there a wrong way to sing a standard?
“That’s a matter of opinion,” he said. “If you’re tone deaf, well, I wouldn’t call it wrong as long as you’re singing for own purposes.”
In addition to the tremendous flexibility, the songs also have a habit of adapting to the times.
“It’s odd, but the lyrics take on different meanings when heard in different contexts,” Feinstein said. “They can become more resonant or less resonant. Like, ‘Can’t Help Loving That Man’ can now be about a woman who is suffering at the hands of some jerk.”
For info and tickets to “GTMF Presents” Michael Feinstein, call 733-1128 or visit GTMF.org. ￼