Wesla Whitfield is one of my all time favorite vocalists. If I were to make one of those "desert island disc" lists, at least one of hers would be on that list (for the record, my first choice would be Live in San Francisco). She has a remarkable way of making standards sound as if they were written especially for her. So it was a pleasure to interview her during her recent run at Seattle's Jazz Alley.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Wesla; it's quite a thrill to be interviewing you. Now don't hate me, but I'm going to start with a question that I know you are sick of answering.
Wesla: Oh dear, which one?
J: What is the story behind your name change? For the longest time you were Weslia, and now you've lost your "I" and are going by Wesla.
W: I was named after a friend of my mom, somebody that she went to school with. And she always told me that it was pronounced "wes-la" but that it had an 'I' in it. Then about five or six years ago, I met this person, and it turned out that she doesn't spell it with an 'I!' My mom died about two years ago, and so I thought "I can change the spelling of my name now!" So I had my 'I' surgically removed. How's that?
J: Kind of an intense form of LASIK, I guess!
W: And there was no scarring!
J: I, along with just about everybody, pronounced your name "wes-lee-ah"
W: Of course! And show business is hard enough without putting up those obstacles.
W: Yeah. We run the 16th of November through the 15th of January.
J: And you are doing a show of songs by Jimmy McHugh. I'm going to show my ignorance here, but who is he? The name is ringing some bells, but I'm drawing a blank on songs.
W: That's why I'm doing this. He wrote "I'm in the Mood for Love," "I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me," "When my Sugar Walks Down the Street," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" ...
J: So he wrote with one of my favorite lyricists, Dorothy Fields!
W: Yes. He was the first person that Dorothy collaborated with.
J: And he wrote music but not lyrics.
J: I have to look in my library. I know I have some of his songs.
W: Darryl Sherman did a wonderful recording of all of his tunes in 1980. You might look for that. Jimmy McHugh is one of those songwriters who lurks around the edges, and you discover that you know a lot of his stuff. He also wrote "Where are You," "A Most Unusual Day," "Exactly Like You;" a lot of this really old stuff that's almost overdone. We're calling this show I'm in the Mood for Love, because people know that title: yes, we're pandering to the lowest common denominator!
J: You're going to be doing another show as well during your run at The Plush Room.
W: How the hell do you know all this???
J: I'm connected to the Internet, Wesla, and you have a website!
W: Oh that's right! Yes, on the 15th of December we start a new show, which we will call High Standards, which means that we can do whatever we feel like doing.
J: You mainly perform songs by non-contemporary songwriters. I've heard you sing an occasional Sondheim song, but ...
W: I rarely sing songs by contemporary songwriters. I feel that I don't interpret them as well as lots of other people do, and that my real forte is doing older tunes.
J: But you usually do them with a wonderful twist.
W: Yes, we do them backwards sometimes! Turn the ballads uptempo.
J: And I love that you do so many uptempo songs in a more wistful manner.
W: Thank you. Just as long as they aren't 'poignant!' I have a great fear of poignancy. I suffer from poignaphobia!
J: I'm looking around to make sure that we aren't going to be overheard here, because I'm going to mention the dreaded 'C' word ... cabaret! Many jazz people have an intense aversion to being associated with that word.
W: I'm not a jazz singer. I'm in this club because they've loosened their policy somewhat. I don't think of myself as a cabaret singer, either ... I'm just a singer. I really don't know what makes things 'cabaret,' exactly. Except that a lot of times, a lot of stuff that goes on in cabaret shows has everything to do with something other than music. And that's why I left opera, because it was all about 'the voice' and 'the mystique' and I really care about 'the music.'
J: It seems that most jazz performers, though, care only about 'the music' at the expense of 'the lyrics.' I always think of you as being extremely connected with 'the lyrics.'
W: Yeah, but there were lots of people in jazz who were like that. Billie Holiday never did scat singing, not once. And then there were people like Irene Krall who did scat, but cared about the lyric. Certainly Carmen McRae cared about the lyric. And Sylvia ... did you ever get a chance to hear Sylvia Syms?
W: Oh man. Those are all some of my heroes. And Rosemary Clooney ...
J: And one of my favorites, Shirley Horn.
W: Oh yeah. We have this joke called "the Shirley Horn Tempo." It's when you sing a song so that you don't think the next beat is ever going to come! She's astounding.
J: What performers around today do you like?
W: I like Ann Hampton Callaway, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, a woman in the San Francisco area named Madeline Eastman, I'm very fond of Phillip Officer, and of course Maggie Whitting ... you can't not like Maggie Whiting.
J: You started off as a classical singer.
W: I did. I started in opera. Mostly because that's all there was when I went to college. You studied classical, or you didn't study voice at all.
J: What made you switch to the Popular American Songbook?
W: Well, I was singing with the San Francisco Opera and I found myself sneaking off to piano bars to sing this wonderful music, because it was stuff that I knew, because the lyric was so terribly important, and because it touched me. And I thought that if it touches me, that it would touch other people.
J: Who's your favorite lyricist?
W: Lorenz Hart.
W: That's why I was so happy to do this new CD.
J: I love Lorenz Hart. What's your favorite song of his?
W: I can't answer that one.
J: No pat answer eh?
W: No, it changes daily.
J: Your first albums were put out on your label, Myoho. Are they ever going to be re-released on CD?
W: I don't know, because I don't own them any more. They were bought out by Muse Records. And Muse re-released one of them, Nobody Else but Me, and then they sold their catalogue to the man who owns many labels, including Blue Note, and I'm sure that when he bought Muse he didn't go "Oh good! Now I have the Wesla Whitfield library!" He wanted the more heavy duty jazz stuff. So my albums are probably stuck away someplace. But, you know, I think that's OK. This is our thirteenth recording, and I think the last four or five have been so superior to our first ones that it's fine if they are not re-released.
J: Yeah, but for us complete-ests ...
W: Just get over it! (laughs)
J: Who comes up with your arrangements and the general 'feel' for your songs? You or your husband and music director, Mike Greensill?
W: I usually find out which songs I think want to do, and I bring them, usually about 50 or so, to the project. I try to have a very clear idea of how I want to do those songs, and then I present that to Greensill. Since I'm his wife, of course my ideas are almost always wrong! (laughs) Then if he has strong opinions, we try it his way as well. But eventually, almost always, he comes back to what I thought. Rarely has he changed my mind.
J: How long have you two been working together?
W: About a hundred years. No, we've been married 100 years! We've been married 13 years next month. We started working together in 1981, so 18 years.
J: You did a show Off Broadway about a year ago.
W: Just a year ago tomorrow, actually. Life upon the Wicked Stage at the Kaufman Theatre.
J: How did that go?
W: We were brilliant. We were there for three weeks. We got several good reviews, we got one fabulous review, and we got one OK review from the Times, which was the only one that mattered. Steven Holden likes to refer to me as 'matronly.' Anything I do just goes right over his head.
J: I have to say ... that's not an adjective I would ever associate with you.
W: Thank you! He feels that I'm a pleasant housewife entertaining in my living room. You know how there are people that you just don't care for or get? Well, I'm one of those people for Steven Holden. But it was a wonderful show, and then we got to do it for six weeks at The Plush Room in San Francisco, which was a great joy and which was very well received. And I think it was a great show.
J: Are you going to be doing Life upon a Wicked Stage anywhere else?
W: I don't know. Greensill asked me that just the other day. It's not the kind of show that you can do just anywhere. It's got screens and slides and voice overs and stuff ... so you can't just pack it into the suitcase and go off. I'm still a little broken hearted from the Off Broadway run.
J: Did the audiences come?
W: The audiences came as much as audiences will come when something gets an OK review in the Times. Terry Teachout at the Daily News just jumped up and down, screamed and raved at how wonderful it was. Village Voice and >Variety also gave it a good review. But it's only the Times that matters.
J: And people say it has no power ... uh-huh!
When you put together a show ... do you do pretty much the same songs every night, or do they change depending in your mood and whims?
W: It depends. Tonight, for example, our first set is going to be all Rodgers and Hart, just because we felt like doing Rodgers and Hart. But our second set is going to be this and that. And the 'this and that' might change. Or we might reverse the order of the sets tomorrow. We'll shape the evening depending on how we feel.
J: So, what are you going to be doing after your run at The Plush Room?
W: So far, I know that we'll be at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles for two weeks in May, and usually right after that, we go to San Francisco and do a new recording.
J: Any ideas on what it's going to be?
W: Hopefully it will be Jimmy McHugh.
J: Tell me about your teddy bears.
W: I don't make them any more!
J: Oh no! I thought I found the perfect Christmas present for my mother, who collects teddy bears and adores you!
W: Well, when I got to the point where I was ten teddy bears behind, I said to myself "you can't do this Wesla!" But I made them for Broadway Cares and it was a wonderful, inspiring thing to do. And maybe someday I'll be able to do it again, but I hope that by the time I have time, Broadway Cares will not need to exist.
J: How do you manage to have a career while living in San Francisco?
W: I do ten weeks at The Plush Room, and I've lived in San Francisco for 31 years, so I have a following and can sell out pretty much every night for that ten week run. Because we produce it ourselves, we end up making a lot of money, and pretty much live on that money all year. And with little gigs like this one, we clear a little bit of money, and by the end of the year we've got a little bit more to put into the bank for our retirement. We're not rich, but we're making a living doing this, and that's how I manage to do it.
J: Do you produce your own CDs?
W: No. I haven't had to do that for quite a while. A man by the name of Orrin Keepnews, who's a big jazz producer, took a great interest in us, I don't know why, about 12 years ago. And he started acting as our producer. So we did a few albums on his old label, the Landmark Label, which was a highly respected jazz label. And then he sold his label to Joe Fields of Muse Records. And we made three or four on Muse, and then they sold their label and they started a new label called High Note. And it's a wonderful label for me, because it's very tiny, but it's always been very tiny, and they understand that the way that they stay in business is to make recordings, so we get to make one every year. They give us a budget and we get to do whatever we want. They just stop short of taking boxes of records around the country and selling them to the stores! They really stay on top of the stores. I mean Sony wouldn't do that! And whenever we're going to do something, they fax all of the stores in that area and they try to get them to take more.
J: That's great! So they still manage to be very hands on.
W: They are very dear to me. And when I was in New York this last spring at The Jazz Standard, Joe came with is wife and his son Barney and his wife and they took me out to dinner and they were like proud parents! It was so nice ... that kind of personal stuff!
J: Do you ever sing classical music any more?
W: Not outside of my living room, but yes, I do it every day.
J: I find it hard to believe you were a soprano! You have such a nice lush mezzo going.
W: I am a soprano. And if I had to sing to fill up a room, I would sing very high and use that part of my voice. But the thing that allows me to be an alto is the sound system.
J: One of the things I like most about your singing is that you've taken the best of every genre. You've got the technique, clarity and line from classical singing, the attention to lyrics from cabaret, and the freedom and fun of jazz. I love it!
W: Thank you. It's been a long haul to get from being an opera singer to where I am and I am constantly moving from opera; everyday I move a little further away. Greensill was pointing out something that I do on this CD. On the song "You Took Advantage of Me," the bridge goes "I'm so hot and bothered, that I don't know my elbow from my ear. I suffer somethin' awful each time you go, and much worse when you are near." And he said, "you hear that? You're saying 'somethin' awful!'" How far away from opera is that?
J: It only exists in Porgy and Bess land!
Thank you for a wonderful interview, and I hope you have a great run in San Francisco. And I can't wait to hear your next CD!
Wesla will be performing at The Plush Room, which is located at 940 Sutter Street (at Hyde), in San Francisco through January 15, 2000. For reservations call 415-885-2800. For more information on Wesla, her other CDs, or upcoming performances, visit her website.
Wesla's newest CD, With a Song in My Heart, which has her performing songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, contains the following songs:
1) With a Song in My Heart