Cabaret

Interview with
Baby Jane Dexter

by Jonathan Frank

Baby Jane Dexter is one of the most giving performers on the cabaret or any stage. Not only does she consistently give 100% to her audience, delivering her special brand of high octane belted blues intermingled with heart rending ballads, but she is well known and regarded as a champion and mentor to up and coming performers. She also shares a large portion of her time and talents with various out reach programs, during which she details both her successes and the obstacles she has over come to get to where and who she is; one of the most original and delightful performers either in person or on disc.

Jonathan:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Baby Jane. I have been wanting to interview you for ages, so I'm thrilled to finally get the chance!

Baby Jane:  Well, thanks!

JF:  Believe it or not, when I got up this morning and turned on my CD player, which has 200 CDs stored in it, the first song it randomly played was from your Big Bad and Blue album!

BJ:   Really? Do you swear to that? What song?

JF:  I can't remember the title ... it was one of those big "don't do your woman wrong" numbers that you do so well.

BJ:  That would definitely be from Big Bad and Blue then ... it's a demanding album in that area...(laughs)

JF:  So I had my tea and breakfast to your music and it was all my player's idea! Both of your albums get heavy rotation on my player and I can't wait for a third album to join them. When are you going to come out with another CD?

BJ:   We just recorded one of my shows live at the Firebird. The CD is going to be called Making Every Moment Count, which is the title of the show I've been doing. When I did Making Every Moment Count at the Firebird Café in December, people were constantly asking where they could get a copy of the show, so when I brought the show back in March, we recorded a couple of the performances. I'm either going to turn one of those nights into a CD or combine the two, because each night had a different piano player and that might make it interesting musically. I haven't decided. It was just recorded and in a month or two when I'm back in town, I can listen to it with the engineers and see what we feel like doing.

Now I have a question for you: Do you remember where we first met?

JF:  Of course; the Russian Tea Room ages and ages ago when they were still doing cabaret shows in the classic space.

BJ:  Just checking! It was October 10th, 1994 ...

JF:  Oh my God! Don't tell me it was an important enough date to write down in your calendar?

BJ:  No, it's in my head.

JF:  Even scarier!

BJ:   I know that date because that's when I started Prozac (laughs).

JF:  Actually, I have to admit to an embarrassing but hopefully entertaining story behind our meeting ... My parents were in New York that weekend before heading off to London, and when I found out that Karen Akers was going to be performing at Rainbow and Stars I decided to horn in on their trip. After we saw Karen Akers, I noticed in the Times that Baby Jane Dexter was performing at the Russian Tea Room. Now for some strange reason my mind turned Baby Jane into Blossom Dearie ... so I told my parents that we were going to see this baby-doll voiced older jazz performer ... and instead we were blown away by this big, bluesy, no-holds-barred force of nature that is Baby Jane!

BJ:  You must have been in shock! Although that Blossom Dearie isn't as demure as you may think! (laughing). So that was our beginning ... I really miss the old Russian Tea Room. Although I've now moved to my other Russian space, The Firebird Café.

JF:  One of the reasons we've been having such troubles hooking up for this interview is that you're out of town a lot ... where did you get back from this time?

BJ:   I just got back from LA, where I went to get my hair done ... (laughs) I closed at the Firebird on the 24th and left at 6am the next day to go to the Academy Awards ... which was very fancy ... and afterwards I got my hair done, which is such the thing to so after the Oscars! (laughs).

JF:   What were you doing at the Oscars?

I Got Thunder
Song Clip Click for
"Love Hurts"
In RealAudio

BJ:  Eating! There's a lot of excitement and crowds, and it was a lot of fun. But I felt like that about the Tonys; it's not as if I was sitting in the front row! Not like one of my favorite events of this past year. I was invited to Barbra Streisand's final concert at Madison Square Garden; actually I was given the choice of singing in the chorus behind her or watching the show. The person who was leading the chorus thought I would enjoy watching the show more, because you're under the stage the whole damn time until the very end. While it would be fun to say that you performed with Barbra ...

JF:   ... Baby Jane on stage with Babs! Now that conjures quite the image!

BJ:  More like under the stage (laughs). Barbra is on stage and you are under her feet where nobody can see you! So I had this very nice, unbelievable seat; James Brolin was on the other side of the aisle from me! It was so bizarre! Much better than being under the stage like a slave! It was such a big event, and it was really fabulous, but to be honest with you my favorite show this year was Polly Bergen's ... she was at Feinstein's and was fantastic! Barbra's was such a big event, but Polly really got me in my gut. And last night, after I got home from California I raced over to Arci's to see Margaret Whitting who was just delightful. And after that I ran over to see another friend, Julie Wilson.

JF:   Lord, have you even stopped to unpack yet???

One of the things I love about watching you perform is that not only do you always reach deep into the heart of the song but into the heart of the audience as well.

BJ:  You know what is interesting about that, Jonathan? I didn't have that at the beginning, because I was always trying to fit into whatever was 'happening.' My managers would try and get me to sing something along the lines of whatever was big on the charts at the time, but that stuff wasn't a fit for me personally. Today I'm this totally giddy person because I have discovered my musical connection. The song that you choose to sing has to be important to you. That doesn't mean that it can't be fun; you can't just sit and sing only serious stuff. And besides that, things that are fun are serious because humor is based on pain and you can always get messages and feelings across through a laugh. Like, for instance, a song I like to sing called "One Meatball" is lots of fun but it's really a song about humiliation and hunger. I remember that somebody who bought one of my albums told me that her 11-year-old daughter listened to that song and thought it was a sad song; she heard it as someone who was being teased.

JF:  True ... the first time I heard that song I thought it was hysterical, but now I'm always torn between laughing and pitying the poor guy.

You know ... every time I have seen you on stage I have thought to myself how 'at home' you seem. Which makes me all the more surprised to hear that you didn't perform for ten years. What happened?

BJ:  What happened was I took a small break from performing, and what was going to be a few months to regroup became ten years. My manager and I had parted ways and a lot of things were coming apart ... I had some money from ASCAP from songs that I wrote ... enough to last three months ... and then I planned to get back on track. But what happened was I got afraid. By not doing what it is you love, you loose your confidence and find all these reasons that aren't real not to do things. To see me perform you would never believe I was afraid, but if you don't do it for years, you become like a swimmer who forgets how to paddle. I started over, basically in 1991, so it's been almost exactly ten years since I started up again. And so much has happened. But I've come to understand that all of that is just part of the plan; that all the mistakes and wrong choices are something to learn from. It's like being an Olympic swimmer ... you are in your own lane and shouldn't care about anybody else's lane; you need to focus on your own performance and realize that there is no time clock or finish line and whenever you get where you are going is the right time.

Recently a booker here asked me if I wished that all of this happened ten years ago ... all these awards and great reviews that I have received since starting over ... and I was so astonished. It never dawned on be, because I wasn't the same person then. I'm a much more fully developed person and I gained all that stuff by living the life that I have lived and that's what I have put into the songs.

When I started over again after not singing for ten years, I felt so incredibly lost. I completely owe my return to my friend Vito Russo. When he was ill, I was working as his caretaker, and he was always trying to get me to perform again. One day I went to his house with a tape so I could perform for him. He said, "This is great, but you really need to sing for people; that's what you do best." I didn't see that; I just knew I was miserable and depressed and that my hair was falling out from depression ... I was really a mess.

I ended up booking a few gigs so that Vito could see me singing in public before he died. I set up five bookings but he died before I did any of them, so I cancelled all but one or two. When he died, he left it in his will that I sing "Forever Young" and "When I'm Gone" at his memorial ... and he had three around the country, because he was well-known as an AIDS activist, a gay activist and a film historian.

JF:  He wrote The Celluloid Closet, right?

BJ:  Exactly. So I ended up doing what I called The Vito Russo Memorial Tour and he became my 'higher power' so to speak ... Two month's later I decided to start singing again thanks to Vito's help. So I started over and eventually did it standing tall on my own.

JF:  The first time I heard your I Got Thunder album, one of the songs, "Fifteen Ugly Minutes," jumped out at me as being one of the most emotionally honest songs ever written. I've always wondered if the events detailed in that song, namely a rape, contributed to your not performing.

BJ:  It didn't. When I was very young ... not a child, but a teenager ... I went out with this handsome guy who I had been warned to stay away from. But I was smitten ... or flattered ... or whatever. They didn't have the phrase "date rape" at the time, but today that's what it would have been called. I was violently raped by him and felt like I contributed to the attack because I went out with him after being warned not to. I co-wrote "Fifteen Ugly Minutes" in 1979 and I thought it would bring closure to my own experience with sexual violence. The song is not a word for word depiction of what happened; it wouldn't work dramatically as a song. In "Fifteen Ugly Minutes," the woman gets the chance to confront the man in court. In reality, the guy ended up dying of a heart attack at 26 and I never did confront him.

So I was singing that song when I was in a rock and roll band in 1979/1980 and it was very powerful and made people very scared. Men were always crossing their legs. When I sang it then, I was a lot angrier and I scared everybody ... they were overwhelmed by it in a very powerful way. And record companies were very weird. They were always run by men and when they heard my tape of that song, they would turn the tape off because they were upset.

Now let's fast forward ten years ...

When I started singing again in February of 1991, there was a lot of stuff in the press about various sexual violence cases; like the mildly retarded girl in New Jersey and the five guys with the baseball bats and the Lakewood High School where the guys developed a point system based on sexual assault. I thought that I really needed to resurrect "Fifteen Ugly Minutes". In 1992 when I first got the record deal to record I Got Thunder, I was performing "Fifteen Ugly Minutes" in my show at Eighty-Eights. I was fighting with the record company about getting it on my album because I knew that it was an important song and that it had to be on there but the record company didn't agree.

One day during all the arguing over the song, I was at a bus stop at 103rd street and I was talking to these two women about how upset I was because the battle with the record company was always on my mind. We got on the bus, and I ended up singing the song on the bus and nobody got off the bus for 50 blocks. It was all women on the bus, except for one poor guy who was cowering in the corner. When I finished the song, the women were all going "It's the 90's! What's the big deal? It's a great song and you should record it!" So I'm carrying this story to the record company and after a lot of arguing I finally got it on the album.

Since I recorded the song, people write to me about it all the time and seek me out to talk about things that happened to them. As a result I got invited to talk to all these groups. I readily accepted since I was getting worn out talking to individuals on the phone; I didn't have three hours to talk to everybody who the song touched and wanted to tell me their story. I would like to, but ...  So I went to talk to a group of women who were very young, twenty or something. I told them I needed a boom box and a videoplayer, because Patti White had done a music video of "Fifteen Ugly Minutes." I played the video for the girls, then sang some songs with the boom box as accompaniment, and then told them about my life and this and that. And then things happened; people revealed things about themselves, and this program developed. It's got an outline, but varies on the spot depending on what comes up; it's very instinctive. And I have found that by talking about it with other women who then reveal things in turn, the negativity of my own experience went away. I don't mean that it vanished as if it never existed, but the terror found its place in my history and became oddly purposeful.

Anyway, this experience became the catalyst for my program which in turn has provided a place for other people to talk about their issues and we all end up being a bit more free from whatever hold that experience has on us. It's a very important thing for me, what has developed.

JF:  You are actively involved in a variety of outreach programs as well. Not just ones involving sexual violence but ones geared towards empowering kids and young adults.

BJ:  Yes. In May I'm going to be doing The Diva Project at the prestigious George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It's sort of a mentoring program where they get four women who are highly recognized in their fields, such as writers or theater arts people, to work with high school and junior high school kids. My group is going to be thirteen-year-olds this year. Each 'Diva,' or 'Gentlemen,' since they've added male mentors this year, has about fifteen to twenty kids and for two weeks you work on a project that coaches them into channeling their energies in a positive creative way.

Somebody asked if I'd rather do these programs than sing in clubs or doing concerts ... and I have to say not in a million years! First of all, it is who I am; my clarity in everything I know and learn has come from and is expressed through my singing. I feel that my success and the work I do sets a good example for all these people who think you can't start over or for people who think that you can't be a success unless you are a certain size and look. However, I do feel that what I do in terms of reaching people in a deeper way is more important than singing to them in clubs ... it's about changing the world. You have the opportunity to affect people in a personal way. I have learned from audiences that my job in life is to reach people in a deep way. I'm jumping up and down and celebrating inside myself because I finally know who I am and what I am supposed to do and I take it very seriously. And that's why, for example, if anything ever happens on stage I don't let it hurt the show because that moment is never coming again. If you as a singer screw up that moment because you're worried about whether your voice cracked or you heard a strange noise or something fell down or the piano player screwed up ... you're worried about all this stuff and how you appear ... that destroys the moment. The audience only gets upset if you're upset. So if you can handle it ... just keep going! It doesn't matter! You have this chance to reach people so that's how I look at all that stuff. And what could be more important than that?

JF:   Well said! Thanks Baby Jane!

BJ:  My pleasure, Jonathan Frank!

For more information on Baby Jane Dexter and upcoming performances, visit her website.


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