One of the joys of cabaret is that no matter what your musical tastes are, you are bound to find a singer who encompasses them. A greater joy is finding a performer that you never knew existed, and then wonder how you got along with out them. This just happened to me with a wonderful jazz-style cabaret performer named Mary Foster Conklin. Imagine the easy jazziness of Diana Krall and the lyricism of Wesla Whitfield fused with the range and vocal clarity of Linda Eder, and you can see why I was smitten. This has been a very good year for Mary; she won the MAC Award for Jazz Vocalist, the Bistro Award for Outstanding Recording, and In Theatre listed her debut CD, Crazy Eyes as one of the ten best CDs of 1998.
Jonathan: Let me tell you again how much I've enjoyed your CD. It has become one of my favorite jazz CDs and I have enjoyed playing it for people. I like the fact that you don't do a lot of needless ornamentation and that you are one of the few jazz-type singers who actually connects with and trusts the lyrics.
M: Thank you! That's quite the compliment.
J: Do you consider yourself primarily a jazz artist or a cabaret performer? Or do you fall in the 'I am what I am' category?
J: Do you perform primarily in jazz clubs or cabaret spaces?
M: It's a mix. I've done straight cabaret genres, like The Emelin Theatre and their cabaret program. I've done the Cabaret Convention for many years. I've performed at Don't Tell Mama's, Eighty Eight's, Danny's ... clubs like that. But when I'm singing with The Heavenly Band, which is the big 15 piece band I perform with, we've done The Knitting Factory, St. Peter's, and The Izzy Bar. We're going into Swing 46 in August, which is one of the swing clubs next to Don't Tell Mama's. Actually, the night of the MAC awards this year, I had to leave early because I was singing at Swing 46. I won the award and said "Thank you, gotta go, I have a gig!"
J: I remember that, and that's when you won for best Jazz Artist. Do you do a lot of performing out of state?
M: I sang down in Florida, during the brief time that Eighty Eight's was open down there. I've performed at the Greenbriar Hotel in West Virginia. I performed at a resort called Chateau Elan, which is outside of Atlanta. I've sung in Nantucket, Connecticut.
J: When you put together a show, do you shape the evening a la cabaret, with a theme or with a story arc?
M: I've never done what I would call a classic "theme" type show. I was a DJ in college, and you can never get out of that mindset; of putting sets of music together and finding songs that segue well into each other. I'm a very picky person when it comes to programming. I get very impatient when I go to see shows that are ballad heavy, or where everything is in the same key or has the same rhythm. Or when a performer sings two songs that are very similar in theme, and I wonder why they didn't sing just one of them.
I definitely like to take my audience on a journey of some sort. There's a lot of the tried and true of the cabaret genre that I think really does ring true. Things like people really aren't listening until the third number; that you should start with an uptempo song; that the first ballad should be something familiar that everybody knows. I may put together two or three tunes so that they tell a story, but I've never done a top to bottom theme show.
J: When you perform a program, is it always the same show every night, or do you like to keep it flexible and throw in new songs?
M: I usually perform a pre-planned set. But given the circumstances and the room, I usually allow for some flexibility, give or take a song or two.
J: I've always been curious about how it works in jazz. Who comes up with the arrangements or the style of the song?
M: You're probably sick of hearing this, but it's a mix. In the portion of cabaret that comes from Musical Theater, everything is scripted from top to bottom. In the jazz world, there's a little bit more room for serendipity; for conversations. The arrangement is arranged ahead of time, but the minute you bring in the musicians and give them their parts to play, a lot of new stuff, new feedback, will come from the musicians. Things like "that would be great to do with a bossa nova feel" or "you've written it in 4 but it's really a 2 feel." We usually encourage feedback from the people that play with me. It usually takes Jeff Klitz and me about 2-3 months to cook up a piece arrangement, and then there's always room for change. It's embarrassing, but it really takes a year to work up a good tune.
J: Let's take one of my favorite cuts on the CD, "The Gentlemen is a Dope," which has a completely different spin on it. Did you come up with the idea of how it should sound, or did Jeffrey come up to you and say "I've got a great idea on how to do this song?"
M: Actually, that's a funny story. We did a benefit, and we were assigned that song. At the time, we both considered it to be a song that is usually done by non-singers. So we went to the song and deliberately tried to come up with something different with it, because vocalists really aren't that fond of the song. And the arrangement that came out of it, the Salsa/Spanish feel, turned out to be so much fun. It's from an old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (Allegro) and it's sung by a secretary who is in love with her boss. And suddenly I had a clear vision in my mind, from a New Yorker's point of view, who this person was and what her problem was. And suddenly it had a life of its own. The more you bring to a tune, the more it goes in its own direction. When we recorded it, we brought in players like Bill Mays, who is such an incredible player. And people like that add so much in furthering an arrangement; it encourages the singer to go even further, so that there's a balance and you don't feel like you are being overshadowed by your musicians. Nor do you feel like you have people who are being forced to keep time behind you. Instead, you are making this great picture.
J: One thing I've really enjoyed about your CD is that you sing in a higher register than most jazz people ... and it's funny; your speaking voice is much lower than I thought it would be from listening to you on the CD!
M: (laughing) The music on the CD is pitched rather high.
J: Which is great. Because while you have the smoky jazz singer side to you on the CD, you also have this register that is unusual for this type of music. It also is apparent that you have quite a bit of good solid training behind you.
M: Oh yes. If you're going to sing jazz, you better have the chops.
J: But it seems that too many jazz singers are cookie cutter performers. So many of them sound alike, and compensate for not having vocal training or range with pyrotechnics or singing in the bottom of their registers.
M: That's funny, because so many of the singers that I really admire did not have great ranges: Anita O'Day, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Horn ... They did not have incredible singing voices. Now, I really get into the history of singers, and there was this period in the 50s and 60s, when the singers really came out from the big band sound and became singers unto themselves. Like Sinatra. That era is later than what is usually thought of as classic cabaret material, and the arrangements suddenly take on incredible dimensions. Each singer had a really defined personality. I find that period to be the most interesting, because five singers could sing the same song and it would be completely different takes, based on the arrangements and their personalities.
J: You've mentioned a few singers that you like. Who would you consider to be the three that most influenced you?
M: Frank Sinatra, Mark Murphy, and ... it's a toss-up between Ella Fitzgerald and Carman McCrae.
J: I don't know Mark Murphy.
M: You should. Mark Murphy is just an amazing phraser; a consummate singer/musician. What he does with rhythm and phrasing ... he could take the most familiar standard and just put it on its ear, making it a fresh thing every time you hear him perform it. I saw him perform shortly before I went into the studio to record my CD. Jeff Klitz and I saw him at Birdland and it changed just about every arrangement we had, when we heard him sing.
J: You originally came to New York to be an actress. Do you still pursue acting?
M: I do sometimes, not as much. I've done some workshops of musicals. I was in the early workshop of Bright Lights, Big City. I did one of the backers auditions last summer for Swing on crutches. There was a period when I was a joke in the cabaret world, because I was always on crutches or with a cane. It was ridiculous! I think Mary Cleere Haran was supposed to do it but she got called out of town, and there was nobody else. I told them I could do it but that I was on crutches. So I sang "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." I guessed it helped because they are coming to Broadway.
J: What is a typical day for you in terms of training, working, and preparation, especially now that you are focusing on club work instead of on acting?
M: I spend more time in my day now practicing the way a musician practices. And I find that I'm much more focused and disciplined now as a musician than I ever was as an actor. So it tells me that, while I may have dreamed about being an actor, I understand better what it means to be a good musician.
Singers have to be detectives: constantly looking for new music; researching, keying and charting music; experimenting with different ideas on how to approach a lyric. I go to see other performers a lot. I recently started studying with a teacher who also teaches keyboard and demands that all of her singers also play an instrument, whether they can play it in performance or not. I have found that to be tremendously helpful. And it really does change how you approach your music when you have to deal with it as a musician as well as a performer.
J: You also formed a theater company. Does it still exist?
M: My professional acting debut was in a political drama with music. I played a starving Ukrainian peasant with such songs as "Give us bread or shoot us." And in a show like that, you really bond with your castmates. Six of us who were chorus members in that show formed a company. In the 80's, we got together and did Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, and then we branched out to original plays. We were very much into cross casting and non-traditional casting before it was the norm. It really was a wonderful experience, but as anybody who has ever done non-profit theater can tell you, it really is an avenue for burn-out. When you're trying to raise money, put on a show, build a set, act in the show ... forget it! The company did its last show about 10 years ago.