If it is true that what you are doing the first minutes of New Year's Day is what you are going to be doing the rest of the year, I am in for quite the wonderful year as I ushered in 2004 listening to one of my favorite singers, Natalie Douglas. A three-time recipient of the MAC Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist, as well as the MAC Hanson (Critic's) Award and the Bistro Award for Outstanding Female Vocalist, Natalie Douglas is an incredible performer who mixes jazz, gospel, blues and contemporary music into a highly intimate and emotional whole. I made my New Year's Day even better by chatting with her about her upcoming show, To Nina: A Tribute to Nina Simone, an earlier version of which was one of my favorite shows of 2003.
Jonathan: Happy New Year, darlin', and how are you doing this fine New Year's Day?
Natalie: I'm fine ... happy, but tired. (Laughs)
JF: Your show last night was such a wonderful way to usher in the New Year. How long have you been doing shows on New Year's Eve?
ND: Last night was my second New Year's Eve show at The Duplex. Before that I did shows for about four years in a row at Eighty-Eights before it closed. In between, I did some New Year's private parties and actually took one New Year's off.
JF: You enjoy working on New Year's Eve then?
ND: Yes! I really like it. It's fun ... the people are in a good mood ...
JF: ... because we're drunk ...
JF: I was so surprised to hear you say during the show that you grew up in Los Angeles. I always had it in my mind that you were from the real South versus southern California ...
ND: A lot of people do. I was born and raised in southern California, but my folks are from east Texas and I spent summers there as a kid. So I was raised by southerners with a traditional southern background ... just not in the south. I think I got the best of both worlds, in that they weren't horribly strict and I was not sheltered at all. But I have said, "Yes ma'am" and "No ma'am" most of my life and sure grew up knowing what good food is!
JF: How long have you lived in New York?
ND: I have lived here for fifteen years. I moved here when I realized that it suited me more than Los Angeles. When I came out to New York to visit two of my best girlfriends in the mid '80s, from the moment I got off the plane I thought, "Oh ... this feels like home."
JF: Did you come here to act or sing or both?
ND: My degrees are in theater and psychology, with an undergraduate certificate in women's studies, and I thought that I would use it all and be a performer. When I first got out of school I didn't quite know what to do. I was really young, first of all; I got out of college when I was 16 and graduate school at 19. And my mother really, really, really wanted me to find a job with benefits and a pension. I did that for a while before I realized I really didn't like it; it wasn't enough having a steady paycheck and health insurance ... both of which I love very much, by the way ... so I decided to come out here and try it before I got locked into a lifestyle and a mortgage.
JF: What sort of theater have you been doing?
ND: I did a lot of my theatrical work in L.A. A group of friends and I formed a tiny theater company when we were too young to know that it was a ridiculous idea and that we could never make it work. For ten months we did a lot of cool shoestring productions and I got to play parts I would never have gotten the chance to do otherwise. I played Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday and Evy Meara in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, which was one of the few times I got to sing on stage as we added little sung moments for the character, who is a singer and a recovering alcoholic ... something I was great at playing when I was 19 (laughs).
I didn't study musical theater in school, so it was rare for me to sing on stage. Singing was something I always did, though. My mother taught me when I was little and it was always part of my life. Back in L.A., before I was even out of college, I had a friend who would talk me into going to clubs and restaurants that had music and she would insist on me getting up and singing a couple of tunes. I got my first gig that way, at a steakhouse.
JF: How old were you?
ND: Seventeen. It was the first money I ever earned singing and it was a blast.
JF: I know that you are involved here in the ATRAINplays over at the Neighborhood Playhouse. What exactly are those?
ND: They are incredible! What happens is that writers get on the A Train up at its northern most stop, having pulled a number out of a hat and received a corresponding number of headshots and resumes. During the ride to the end of the line, which takes about an hour and a half, they write a one-act play. When they reach the last stop they pull the name of their director and whether or not the show is a musical. If it is, they then pull the names of their choreographer, composer, and lyricist. They then get back on the train and have another hour and a half to write two or three songs.
JF: So some of those people I see on the subway humming and scribbling may not be insane but may be writing a musical for this ...
ND: Yup! (laughs) Then they go back down to Columbus Circle [59th Street] and meet the actors. We catch a bus and go to Neighborhood Playhouse and that is all the time you have to read your hurriedly Xeroxed copy of the handwritten script and find out who your character is, what is happening in the show, and all that sort of thing. We then go upstairs at Neighborhood Playhouse, listen to the songs and tape them, since they obviously haven't been written out, and do a rough performance of the first three pages and the last page to get a sense of what the show is like and place them in an order for the following evening. We're usually released that night after we do some tinkering to find out what key the song should be in and that sort of thing. Then we come back the next day and twenty-three hours after the moment we have met the directors and such, we are onstage performing the show off-book.
JF: It sounds like an incredible training exercise.
ND: Oh my God! It forces you to use all of your training. It absolutely reduces the amount of bullshit involved; there's no room for egos or games or those tricks that we as actors come to rely on. One of the producers describes it as "the NASCAR of theater," in that people come to see if we'll crash and burn! The spontaneity and adrenaline is incredible.
JF: Is there a website one can go to in order to find out when they are occurring?
ND: No. It usually gets listed online [such as on Theatermania.com] when it is happening, but there's not an official website since it has been selling out through word of mouth and through the performers' mailing lists. We've been adding performances as a result.
JF: I am so glad that you are bringing back your Nina Simone show to the King Kong Room, as it was one of my favorite shows of last year.
ND: Thank you! It's my first tribute show and I love, love, love it. I grew up listening to Dr. Simone's music and being mad for it, and I am just captivated by this really complicated and interesting woman.
JF: The show is not a re-creation, for the most part, of Nina Simone's arrangements, correct?
ND: No. We're trying to be respectful of her style and flavor but we're not recreating her songs verbatim. Also, I didn't want to get into the trap of imitation, because first of all, no one could do that, and secondly that isn't what I want to share with an audience; "Listen to me and see how much I sound like Nina Simone." Instead, I wanted to say, "Isn't this music amazing?" as well as show the stories that she told and do my best to tell them.
JF: Are you still doing "Four Women?," [a number that Nina Simone wrote and performed that describes in haunting detail four African American women]. It was such a spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing moment when I saw the show last year.
ND: Yes. It's such an amazing number. I think it's funny how there was this level of shock and surprise, especially from her record label, when she became involved in the civil rights movement in the mid sixties. They just weren't listening to what she was doing! Before she was officially an activist, she was writing songs like "Four Women" that not only spoke very clearly about her unease, anger and dissatisfaction, but really pointed her finger of guilt at every American, and by that I mean black Americans as well as white, saying that things are really screwed up and that we need to fix it. I think that's how she always felt, and once there was an official movement, she then had someplace to go with her feelings.
One of the reasons I was so happy to really start examining Nina Simone's body of work was that I started listening to it and thinking that she does what I do; she sang folk songs, country songs, jazz, classical, foreign language songs, traditional standards, rhythm and blues, pop, top 40 songs from the time that she was recording ... she sang everything.
JF: She was the prototypical cabaret singer, then.
ND: Yes! When you play one of her songs, anybody who has ever heard her before will instantly know who it is. She didn't sound like anyone else, nor did she sound drastically different depending on what style of song she was singing. She referred to what she did as 'classical soul music;' classical music with an African influence. She didn't label herself as being 'cabaret' or 'jazz;' in fact she didn't like the word 'jazz' because she said it was a word that was made up by the white establishment to label the newly evolved American style of music simply because it was created by black musicians.
JF: I never really think of her as a purely 'jazz' singer either, because she's so lyric and story driven, unlike pure jazz singers who treat the words as an afterthought and focus on the music and using their voices as a musical instrument.
ND: That is a debate that has been going on for over sixty years. People have been arguing for decades about whether people like Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams should be considered to be jazz singers, since both of them cared about the lyrics and told a story, as well as focused on creating musical perfection. My feeling is that when you've recorded with some of the jazz greats, like Cannonball Adderley, you should be considered to be a jazz singer.
JF: So they should simply be designated as 'gosh darn good singers' then.
ND: Yes, and that's my favorite kind.
JF: Are you going to be recording your Nina Simone show for CD?
ND: We're thinking about it. I would certainly love to, but there lots of things we need to work out before doing so. I'm very proud of the show and I love the musical choices that we made. I love what Mark Hartman and the band are doing.
JF: How many instrumentalists do you have on stage?
ND: We have four: bass, percussion, piano and alto sax.
JF: Is this an open ended run?
ND: Yes; every Monday at 9pm until further notice.
JF: You're the first performer to do an extended run at The King Kong Room.
ND: Yes, it's something that they wanted to try out and see how and if it works for both the room and the performer.
JF: It's such a wonderful room.
ND: It really is. I have been incredibly lucky to have worked at so many great rooms in the city: The Firebird, Eighty-Eights, The Duplex ... And The King Kong Room has a very different feeling from what I've been used to, in the sense that it reminds me of the nightclub scene from the 'good old days.' My husband, Billy Joe, and I were talking about how when we moved to New York, we had those old black and white movie visions running through our heads that showed what we thought New York was going to be like: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spoiled me for the real thing! I thought there was going to be these massive club room where you got dinner, champagne, and a show featuring a performer getting up to sing sets of great songs with breaks for people to dance. And I would come to New York and get a job working in one of those rooms. I knew that they didn't exist anymore, but it was the New York I fell in love with through the old movies. I was so bummed when I got here and the Automat was gone. (Laughs) Luckily, I still loved New York when I got here.
The cool thing about the King Kong room is that it feels like a sliver from that golden age and it harkens back to that relaxed, comfortable dialogue between what is happening on stage and the audience.
JF: You have become the unofficial queen of The King Kong Room's Cast Party every Monday night ...
ND: That is so sweet! The Cast Party started last Christmas, you know, as Jim's Christmas party [Jim Caruso is the booking manager for the room and the host of Cast Party]. Jim knows scads of people from film, TV, theater and music and we were having a good time hanging around talking. As the evening wore on, the combo that the King Kong Room hired left ... I don't know if it was their time to stop or if they were just tired of us (laughs) ... but suddenly we were left with a piano, a bass, and a drum kit on stage with all these singers and musicians in the room. So of course, we took over and started singing and playing for each other. A couple days after the party, Jim called us and said that the management of the King Kong Room loved what happened and wanted to make it a weekly event, so it's been going on ever since.
It's been wonderful because there have been some incredible performers: everyone from Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall to people who have just come off of the bus and turn out to be incredible. It's adorable to see kids who are literally performing for the first time in New York. Some are great, and some aren't ... but they are so sweet! It's a blast. It gives us a chance to do stuff we wouldn't do in our shows ... because let's face it; there are songs we love to sing that audiences really shouldn't be subjected to. Audiences have heard enough versions of "My Funny Valentine" to last a lifetime! And there are songs that don't fit in your show or don't match your onstage persona, but that you can knock out of the park. And Jim Caruso makes it swing and work.
JF: Well, I look forward to seeing To Nina on Monday, and then hanging around to catch you at the Cast Party. And best of fates in 2004.
To Nina: A Tribute to Nina Simone opens at the King Kong Room on Monday, January 5th 2004 at 9pm. For reservations, call 212-921-1904 and for more information on the room visit www.kingkongroom.com.
For more information on Natalie, including samples from her CD, Not That Different, and news on upcoming performances, visit her website, www.nataliedouglas.com.