The best play in New York just moved to Washington. Warren Leight's "Side Man," the wrenchingly funny story of a young man's attempts to come to terms with his trumpet-playing father and alcoholic mother, opened last week at the Kennedy Center after a Broadway run that brought it a well-deserved Tony Award. Speaking as a recovering jazz musician, I can assure you that "Side Man" is true to life: It was as if my memories had been snatched by a stranger and put onstage. I saw it twice, and I'd see it again if it hadn't left town.
The only thing missing from "Side Man" is women singers--or, to use the term preferred by certain instrumentalists, chick singers. If you detect an edge of contempt, there's a reason. Some jazz musicians admire and appreciate female vocalists, but others regard them as a lower form of life, so much so that ethnic-style "chick-singer jokes" (mostly unintelligible to civilians and usually unprintable in a family paper) circulate incessantly throughout the jazz community.
Me, I love singers, male and female alike, and it so happens that several good ones are slowly working their way up what one starving songstress of my acquaintance dryly refers to as "the food chain" of nightclubs and concert halls. In New York, the topmost links are Lincoln Center's invaluable American Songbook concert series--which recently presented a salute to Jimmy Van Heusen that featured the classy likes of Jackie and Roy, Jack Jones and Carol Sloane--and such platinum-plated joints as the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room and the brand-new Feinstein's at the Regency, where the names are big (Rosemary Clooney opened Feinstein's) and the cover charge is stiff enough to loosen the hair on your head.
Considerably farther down on the food chain, but still respectable, is a noisy, nondescript Upper West Side bar and grill called Cleopatra's Needle, which serves adequate Middle Eastern food and, for reasons known only to the management, habitually books interesting jazz and pop artists who are still shinnying up the greasy pole. Two of the best young singers in New York were there last month, and so was I.
Kendra Shank used to sing folk music before she discovered the joys of swinging, and her warm, smooth voice is still perfectly ballad-friendly. But she now favors hotter sounds, and at Cleo's she was accompanied by a near-avant-garde lineup--guitarist John Stowell and a drummer, with no pianist or bassist in sight--that left her plenty of space within which to deftly reconfigure some of her preferred tunes, including Cole Porter's "All of You" and Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debby." Too bad there wasn't a recording crew on hand: I don't know when I last heard a more creative set by a jazz singer.
Mary Foster Conklin, by contrast, started out as an actress, and her style is precisely balanced between jazz and cabaret. Scratch her witty tough-girl-from-Jersey patter and you'll find a sensitive artist (but not frail!) with a wide-ranging, boldly colored voice and an open ear for offbeat material.
Among other good things, she does the songs of David Cantor, who is running hard in the next-Sondheim sweepstakes. But Conklin is also the finest singer of standards to come along since Nancy LaMott--I know no higher praise--and it's only a matter of time before she moves up to the fancy rooms.
Both women have recorded first-rate small-label CDs that can be ordered from Amazon.com (Shank's is called "Wish"; Conklin's is "Crazy Eyes"), and both also have easy-to-find Web sites that let you know where they're singing next. So far, that doesn't include the nation's capital, but presumably somebody smart will book them soon, since there are a half-dozen clubs in and around Washington whose owners know a good thing when they hear it.
For the moment, though, you'll have to venture north if you want to hear them in person, thereby helping redress the cultural trade imbalance caused by the unfortunate departure of "Side Man."