In Town

By staff February 1, 2002

As Time magazine recently said of jazz singer Jane Monheit, she has "good looks, a great voice and the best sidemen around. So what's wrong with that?"

Absolutely nothing, as those who attended last fall's Clearwater Jazz Festival found out. Sarasotans who don't want to travel that far will have their chance to hear the 24-year-old Monheit perform March 1 at the Van Wezel, in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that's playing as part of the inaugural "Women in the Arts Festival." (Patti Austin is also on the bill.) We caught up with her by telephone from Munich, one stop on an international concert tour that included Japan as well as Europe.

Q. Is there any difference in the way overseas audiences and American ones respond to you?

A. There's not much difference between Europe and the States. The big difference in Japan is that they're so incredibly respectful. They take jazz very seriously; the people really, really like American culture, like baseball.

Q. Growing up on Long Island when most kids were listening to rock, you seem not to have had any problem with loving jazz.

A. It didn't concern me because I was always listening to what they were listening to, too. But I just loved jazz. My family is extremely musical, and I always knew I'd do this for a living. I never thought any differently.

Q. Never any stage fright as a kid?

A. I've never been shy.

Q. As far as developing a career in jazz, did you follow a certain accepted path?

A. I pretty much did. I studied jazz, got my education [at the Manhattan School of Music], learned as much as I could. And then I started doing a lot of weddings, parties, little bars, going to jam sessions, meeting musicians. Luckily I decided to enter the Monk competition [the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute Vocal Competition] and I made so many connections through that. [Being named first runner-up] really jumpstarted my career.

Q. You always acknowledge Ella Fitzgerald as the singer with the greatest influence on you. Why?

A. The way she influenced me is probably a little different from the way she's influenced others. Most people want so much to try to emulate her ability to scat sing. She had an unbelievable ear; she was just miraculous, and I've always loved and appreciated that. But what I really learned from her was to sing in the purest, most unaffected way possible. She just had this really natural, pure voice, and I particularly liked the fact that she got through life staying that pure.

Q. Who else has influenced your music?

A. Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie many. And [pianist] Bill Evans has been as influential for me as any singer.

Q. Has it been just a great ride so far, or has the attention been hard to handle sometimes?

A. Being young in jazz is the difficult thing. With another kind of music it would be completely normal, but with jazz people assume you have to have all this life experience, preferably tragic, before you can sing. I don't necessarily think that's true. The music is inside you, and people have to express that at any age.

As long as I'm getting enough rest and staying well-hydrated-I drink more water than you'd think possible-I can handle the traveling. I'm having a great time.

Q. Has your voice changed since your first CD, "Never Never Land"?

A. It's definitely changed. The voice has matured a lot. But then voices are constantly changing. If you have a baby, it changes. If you're suffering stress or depression, it changes. But my range hasn't changed.

Q. What do you do when you're not on the road?

A. The second I have any time I spend it with my family. They're so important to me. My parents are my best friends. And when I do get to be in New York, where I live, I enjoy what the city has to offer-museums, theaters.

Q. How do you make music choices for your performances and recordings? Is it pretty instinctive?

A. With me it's definitely emotional. I choose all my music; I always have. The lyric has to be something I feel strongly about at the time. The best music to sing at any given time is what you're feeling, so you can really communicate with people. It's just about being honest.

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