Michael Feinstein, often called “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” has just released a book of his own, The Gershwins and Me. It celebrates his history with brothers Ira and George Gershwin and their music.
The multi-platinum-selling, two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated artist exhibits an extraordinary passion for his concerts, records, educational programs and landmark New York club Feinstein’s at Loews Regency.
He lends his vocals to twelve of his favorite Gershwin tunes, a CD of which is included with the book. He’s also performing at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency through Dec. 22 in “A Gershwin Holiday.”
He mixes classic Jazz Age hits such as “Swanee” and “Embraceable You” with insightful and funny anecdotes about the Gershwins. He’s backed by a jazz quintet led by Alan Broadbent.
Nick Ziobro, winner of The Michael Feinstein Initiative’s 2012 Great American Songbook High School Competition, opens each evening with classics such as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Feinstein chatted with The Improper after a recent concert.
The Improper: Describe the process of organizing your experiences with Gershwin music into a book.
Feinstein: It was sometimes joyful, sometimes painful. It depended on how I was feeling on a particular day. It was overwhelming at first approach, and then it became a process of winnowing and trying to express and recreate a particular moment in one’s life that will communicate to people and put it into a context that will make sense in the broader spectrum. It was laborious, but it felt great when something was accomplished.
IM: How did you choose the songs to include in The Gershwins and Me and on the accompanying CD?
Feinstein: It was difficult, but I worked with a great writer, Ian Jackman, who helped to organize much of it. As far as choosing the songs, there were certain ones that were inevitable. Sometimes I would pick a particular song because it was connected to a number of stories or anecdotes that I thought were important to tell, or a particular era in the lives of the Gershwins. If it’s a song that I had loved or never recorded before, I would include it for that reason.
IM: What is it about Gershwin music that makes it so important to this country’s culture?
Feinstein: The work itself is inspired in a way that is palpable, as soon as people hear a Gershwin harmonic progression. Whether they are musically literate or not, they feel it. There is a sense of excitement and energy and passion that still comes through those songs and his concert works that is timeless. I think that is the hallmark of any art that lives past the time in which it was created. Certainly with the Gershwins’ sound, it is unique and special and has been imitated many times, yet has never become cliché.
IM: Gershwin music seems to resonate with everyone equally. Why do you think that is?
Feinstein: The great thing about music, art, and culture is that it unites people. One of the big problems in our country right now is that we have not had arts education for decades in our schools in any substantive way. People speak of all the problems in our country. One of the major problems is that we have lost the common things that unify all of us in our hearts. This has created a red state/blue state mentality. It is as clear to me as the fingers on my hand that the lack of arts education has impacted our country in a horrible way.
People don’t see the mirror effect. They have been brainwashed by the political system, and I’m not talking about Democrats or Republicans. I’m talking about everybody. We’ve been so brainwashed that people no longer understand how essential the arts are to our survival. Truly, if you talked to any politician on any side of the fence they will tell you that there is no more camaraderie. One of the reasons is our hearts are frozen. It’s scary.
IM: How would the Gershwins feel about the current state of music?
Feinstein: In the early ’80s, Ira was not at all threatened or frustrated by the music he heard, because he understood that it was all a natural progression. As far as the music itself, I don’t know that either of them would particularly appreciate a lot of the music that is on the pop charts, only because it has lost a lot of the imagination that has created a distinctive sound in the American popular music.
I don’t think they would be happy with the dumbing-down of music. However, I know that if George Gershwin were alive today that he would be using technology in such a spectacular way that it would turn the world on its ear again. He’s always embraced whatever was new, and did something extraordinary with it. He was interested in these things because they were means of expressing his art without boundaries.
IM: What is the most interesting way in which you learned an obscure fact about the Gershwins?
Feinstein: I was speaking to a woman who was a friend of Rose Gershwin, George and Ira’s mother, who I met one day in New York. She told me that right before Rose’s death in 1948 that Rose said to her, “If I had to do it all over again, I never would have had children.” Rose was a complex and odd woman, but that was something I couldn’t wait to put in my book. I also received a letter from a family who were the descendants of those who had shared the house where George Gershwin was born. They gave me information in a letter that revealed new information to me. There is still a lot out there to learn.
IM: If you were given the opportunity to speak with the Gershwins today, what would you say to them?
Feinstein: Thank you for creating a legacy that has really transformed my life and the lives of so many others. I think the thing about the Gershwin cannon is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I never get tired of singing the songs because there are always new ways to interpret them. There’s always something fresh. I can spend the rest of my life just studying Porgy and Bess. The complexity of it is astounding, as is the inspiration that goes along with it.
IM: If you could revive one of the Gershwins’ shows, which would you choose?
Feinstein: A flop show that I would have loved to have seen just because of the score is Pardon My English. It was an absolute mess. Or Treasure Girl, which is essentially a lost show but it has wonderful songs in it. I’m more interested in the obscure shows because of the music that is lost or unheard. If I could go back and see the original productions of shows I would see Of Thee I Sing. Of course there’s also Lady Be Good. To see Fred and Adele Astaire in their prime would have been a thrill.
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency will present Michael Feinstein in “A Gershwin Holiday” through December 22 at 8pm, with additional 10:30pm evening shows on Fridays and Saturdays. The club is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For ticket reservations please call 212-339-4095 or visit FeinsteinsatLoewsRegency.com and TicketWeb.com. The Gershwins and Me is available at Amazon.com, click on the link above.