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Michael Feinstein & the Gershwins :: A Life-long Love Affair

by BeBe Sweetbriar
Friday Mar 1, 2013
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When we hear the term The Great American Songbook, artists that immediately come to mind are Ira and George Gershwin... and Michael Feinstein. The songwriting Gershwins are synonymous with a time in American culture when popular songs came from the Broadway stage and film musicals. They articulated the restlessness of the Jazz Age, bringing syncopation and wit to the popular song, which is why their catalogue has endured, even grown in stature, in the decades since George Gerswhin’s untimely death at the age of 39 in 1937.

Many music artists - from Ella Fitzgerald to Sting - have recorded their songs, but no one is better associated with the Gershwins’ work than Michael Feinstein. In fact, he’s spent his life studying, cataloging and preserving it. This life-long project began when at the age of 20 Feinstein moved to LA where, through a mutual friend, he met Ira Gershwin. The lyricist hired him to first catalogue his extensive collection of phonograph records. This led to six years of researching, cataloguing and preserving the unpublished sheet music and rare recordings in Gershwin’s home.


That was in 1977 when Michael Feinstein began a six-year journey of researching, cataloging and preserving the unpublished sheet music and rare recordings of the Gershwins. In 1986, he recorded his first songbook celebrating great American composers - "Pure Gershwin." Feinstein’s easy, engaging performance style was infectious, as well as his musical scholarship, which led him to an ambitious recording project where he celebrated (often with the participation of the songwriters themselves) the songs that make up that Great American Songbook. In 2008, he began the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative¬†whose mission is to provide the scholarship to research, preserve and perform the titles of the great songwriters of the past century.

So it was no surprise when in the Fall of 2012 Feinstein released his memoirs The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs which uses 12 Gershwin song titles to theme his experience working with Ira Gershwin while in his early 20s. Actually, such a memoir was expected.

Through lecture tour dates since the publication of "The Gershwins and Me," Feinstein has been able to share with word and song why preservation of an era of music on the verge of extinction is important to him, and should be to the rest of us.

Prior to Michael’s lecture tour stop in San Francisco on March 3 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, I had the honor of chatting with the singer, educator, archivist about his book and accompanying 12-song CD, the content of his lecture tour, what the loss of America’s Songbook music does and will mean to our country, and why he has dedicated his life to its survival.


BeBe: We in San Francisco will be experiencing a visit from you on March 3 centered around your book ’Gershwins and Me’ and it’s accompanying CD. Is this city stop apart of an ongoing tour you are doing to promote the book and CD?

Michael Feinstein: I can’t say that it is ongoing. I did a lot of appearances in the Fall of 2012 when the book was released in October, and I continue to do a number of appearances that are interspersed with regular concerts that I’m doing and other activities.

BeBe: It is of no surprise to anyone, particularly with you being the archivist of the Great American Songbook, that you wrote Gershwins and Me which is centered around 12 songs that you came into contact with while working with Ira Gershwin, and then you actually perform these songs presented in an album format. Now, what came first? Did you have a plan to put out these songs and then while performing them you were struck with memories of working with Ira Gershwin while cataloging these songs for him, or did you always have in mind to do this memoir and then the songs just came about from that?

Michael Feinstein: I was approached about doing a book about the Gerswhins and wanted to create something that would be different in execution and concept because there are a number of books about them. I needed to find a way to make it my personal statement about my experience with them, and to share the stories and anecdotes that I learned during the time with Ira Gershwin and met his contemporaries. So, it was an evolutionary process to figure out the form of the book. When we came upon the idea of using 12 specific songs as chapter titles and springboards for subjects of those chapters, it made a lot of sense because it allowed me to present a succession or series of anecdotes in a way was not always linear but from start to finish would eventually tell the story about the Gershwins in a different way. I chose 12 songs that I felt were either important just as songs or ones for which I had specific anecdotes or were kind of important historically in their lives and careers. After I chose the 12 songs, I started organizing and then when the book was completed finished, I recorded the CD.


BeBe: Now will you be singing the songs associated with and reading excerpts from the book when you are on this city-stop event?

Michael Feinstein: I would say this is a lecture with some performance, but it is by no means a concert. It is apart of my lecture tour which will involve some musical performance. The audience will get a good chunk of music, but it is not a concert.

BeBe: Now looking back, you were 20 years old or so when you were introduced to Ira Gershwin and given the opportunity to work with him by cataloging sheet music, some not seen before by others, in order to preserve the writings of the Gershwins (including brother George). At that time how did you respond with this chance meeting that led to working with the music and composing legend?

Michael Feinstein: Meeting Ira Gershwin was very unexpected. I had always been, for lack of a better word, obsessed with the work of the Gershwins. When I got the call to go and meet him, it was dream-like. I was almost out of my body with excitement at the thought of meeting Ira Gershwin, something that seemed impossible knowing that at the age of 80 he was solitary and sedentary. From the moment I met him I was absolutely thrilled to be apart of his world. It was an experience that I never took for granted. Every single day I had this heightened awareness that I was spending time with a legend and very mindful of touching a part of an era that was otherwise gone.


BeBe: Your whole career, as we know it, has been spent on preserving this period of music through performance and through your work as an artistic director so there isn’t a loss of it. We know of your Great American Songbook Initiative and its mission to preserve and research this music, as well as, educate today’s youth on the importance this music has to their lives. Why has this work of preserving the old become so important for you, as opposed to, working more on creating new? You are so talented in your own right without the need to fall back on the creation of music from others, but we haven’t had a lot of exposure to new material from you, such as say a Marvin Hamlisch for example. Why is the preservation of the music from the Great American Songbook been so important to you?

Michael Feinstein: Because it’s always been more important to me than any other music. And yes, I write music and all that, and very good at that actually. To preserve this music is important because we are at a period where it is in danger of getting lost. Being lucky enough to have touched that era through meeting and knowing so many people who were involved (in that time), I feel it is incumbent of me to pass on and share what I’ve learned because it will disappear otherwise. That era and that era of music is much more important to me than any other kind of music. It always has been.

BeBe: Do you think the potential loss of this music is directly related to something that is going on, or not going on, in the primary education system as it addresses music in the education process?

Michael Feinstein: Yes, the world has changed, and one of the things fundamentally is the lack of arts education. It is not hard to link many, many problems in our country to that fundamental lack of education because we have the separation now of Red State and Blue State that comes from the loss of common ground or commonality that the arts bring to us. It (the arts) connects us in our hearts and allows us to look at someone with whom we might otherwise have a divided opinion in a way that we see our unity. We see what we share. So, we now have 20, maybe 30, years of this lack of education where we have people who have been educated in technology, which has replaced arts, in a way that is great for technology, but it’s like we have all these people that no longer have the ability to feel this music or experience it in a way that has deprived a part of our souls. That is why we have such incredible anger and hatred because we have lost the ability to access that part of our hearts. It is so obvious to me. It is as plain as day. Every time I see somebody talk about how unimportant the arts are, I think about how much more retched the world has become because of that.


BeBe: Well said.

Michael Feinstein: Also, the other thing that has happened as a lack of the ability to have this sophisticated understanding or even fundamental understanding of certain kinds of music, pop music has become so simplified that it’s the same chords over and over again. There was just a study that was done that showed that music since 1955 has become incrementally more and more the same three or four chords over and over again. So we have dumb down music to the point that it is just mind numbingly boring.

BeBe: I totally agree. Studies have also shown through the loss of music and arts education, all other cognitive (psychological) learning is affected.

Michael Feinstein: It’s all connected.

BeBe: With this book and CD, will there be future projects developed from them, meaning television specials?

Michael Feinstein: Well, I’ve already done with PBS Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, a series that has been going on and picks back up in April with three new episodes, and a NPR radio show called Song Travels that is in its second season. I also have a CD with Andre Previn (4-time Oscar winner and 10-time Grammy winner) of his songs coming out. So I think I’m covering all of the bases ( we both acknowledge with laughter).

BeBe: Yes, you’ve got it all down. You know we all enjoyed the work you did with Cheyenne Jackson, the 2009 studio recording and night club act Power of Two, which flowed so nicely. Is there a chance we will see something like that from you with other people in the near future?

Michael Feinstein: I’m totally open to it. With Cheyenne, it happened rather organically. It as a wonderful collaboration. We remain close. That was born out of a personal relationship that I think made the music very special. I’m certainly open to working with any number of people. I’d like to record a project with Christine Ebersole (2007 Best Actress in a Musical Tony winner for Amadeus) who I think is one of the great talents of any age. I think she is spectacular. And, Liza Minnelli and I have never done a full-fledged project together. We’ve toured many years ago, but......we’ve talked about doing something. I’d like to do that while we both still have the opportunity to create something.

BeBe: That union would be hot!

Michael Feinstein: I’m thrilled that Liza is working with Alan Cumming (March 13 at Town Hall in Manhattan) because I know that they will be sensational together. For the most part I don’t desire to collaborate with people. But when it does happen and the chemistry is right, there’s nothing better because it brings out of both of us something that can only happen because of that combination, and that’s exciting.

5-time Grammy nominee and author Michael Feinstein makes a The Gershwins and Me lecture tour stop in San Francisco on March 3, 2013 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 7pm. For tickets and more information www.jccsf.org
Michael will also be conducting another The Gershwins and Me lecture on May 7 in Philadelphia at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Upcoming Michael Feinstein concert dates include:

April 3 Carnegie Hall, New York
April 20 Music Center of Strathmore, Rockville
April 26 State Theater, Cleveland
May 4 Colden Center at Queens College, Flushing
May 11 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge

For more lecture tour and concert dates, and other project information visit www.MichaelFeinstein.com


Based out of San Francisco, BEBE SWEETBRIAR is the Omni Present Drag Chanteuse. As an entertainer and hostess, BeBe can be scene every week hosting and performing at countless events and parties in the San Francisco. One of the few drag personalities to sing live while performing, BeBe has literally graced every notable stage in San Francisco, bridging many gay sub-community gaps. She has also been the opening act for Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland, "Ugly Betty’s" Alec Mapa and Dance Diva Kristine W. Adding recording artist to her list of performance accomplishments in 2008 with the release of her first single "Save Me", Ms. Sweetbriar will soon release her fifth dance single in 2012 called "Show It Off"..
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.

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