In praise of Ann Hampton Callaway

I had not heard of Callaway before her audacious 1999 release “To Ella With Love,” but I’m glad I took a chance on that disc. “Ella” led me eventually to Ann’s superb show at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York this past summer, and then to the rest of her recordings. There is no arguing about taste, but in my view she is the foremost living practitioner of the Great American Songbook. Through publicist Miller Wright, Ann graciously consented to a telephone interview this past week.

Ann is one of the most articulate people I have ever spoken with. She is a passionate proponent of the Great American Songbook, calling herself “a keeper of the flame.” Her music straddles the genres of jazz, blues, and popular music, but the Great American Songbook is at the heart of her work. She seeks to take loving care of “the great music of our country.” She wants America to tend to its classic (popular) music, pointing to both the intelligence and heart of the great American composers. “We need performers in every generation to maintain our legacy,” she says, such performers being the practical advocates of “the songs and the artists who have made a mark on our consciousness.”

Such performers need an audience. Is there still an audience for the art that Ann is practicing with her own consummate artistry? The answer is clearly affirmative. Ann referred to recent tour stops in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Naples, where she performed over four nights with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, and an exhilarating appearance at the Terrassa Jazz Festival in Spain last month.

Nevertheless, the audience for singers like Ann has shrunk along with the forums available to them. The somewhat limited extent of her recognition has not matched the extent of her talent. Expanding on observations she has made elsewhere about American Idol, she said that she finds some of the show’s sensibility offensive. On the one hand, she observed, “people love singing and finding a moment in time through it.” On the other hand, the show caters to the perception that “if you wiggle your hips right and apply the right makeup, you’ll have it made.” She laments that the show displays “so little sense of craft and delight in exploring a lyric.” The terms of her criticism provide keys to her own work.

Ann’s story reminds me a bit of the musical “Wonderful Town,” about the sisters who sought the fulfillment of their dream in the Big Apple. Originally from Chicago, Ann and her sister Liz Callaway both headed to New York to make a living in show business. They turned their story into “Sibling Revelry,” the live show they performed at New York’s Rainbow & Stars club in 1995. Ann subsequently starred and had a hand in the Broadway show “Swing!,” the review that revived such music of the ’30s and ’40s as “I’ll Be Seeing You” (one of Ann’s favorites).

Ann’s incredible collection of “signature” songs by her favorite singers on “Signature” gives a rounded view of her influences and her accomplishment. On “Signature” Ann acknowledged the influence of Mel Torme on her work by including her version of one his songs. I asked if she felt a connection to Torme as a native of Chicago. She noted a Chicago connection to Nat “King” Cole and Anita O’Day in addition to Torme. But Torme may have a privileged place in her pantheon. She said that when she moved to New York, she would go to see him perform at Marty’s on the Upper East Side whenever she could. She described him as “an impeccable musician” and praised his ability “to reinvent songs.”

At the top of her pantheon sits Ella Fitzgerald. Although her voice has a greater likeness to Sarah Vaughan’s than to Fitzgerald’s, Ann finds something special in Fitzgerald’s work. Thus the tribute album. What does she find in Fitzgerald’s work? Here she paused for a few seconds before answering, as though she had not been asked the question before: “Her sense of joy is the main thing that sets her apart from anybody else — a childlike glee in performing.” And, she added, still seeking to convey the qualities that set Fitzgerald apart, Fitzgerald had “a sense of mischief.” When she listened to her as a child, Callaway went on, “She sounded like my friend, and like she was having the time of her life.”

Citing “Body and Soul” and “Something to Live For,” Ann also described Fitzgerald as “a beautiful balladeer,” although this was “her unspoken side.” Wanting to complete her observation regarding Fitzgerald’s sense of joy, Ann added, “Not a lot of singers have it. She can’t wait to fly right into the song.” Like the terms of her criticism of American Idol, the terms of Ann’s praise of Torme and Fitzgerald provide the keys to her own work.

Ann is also an accomplished songwriter. In the show that I saw at the Blue Note last summer, she sang her own “You Make Life Worth Living For.” (She had to hum a bar of it for me on the phone to recall the title.) Reflecting her voracious adolescent interest in philosophy, the song shows that she has moved on to romance: “If Camus had learned to kiss like you,” she sings, she would have lost interest in existentialism a bit sooner. For its wit and tunefulness, the song could have been passed off as a lost Cole Porter classic. In “I Gaze In Your Eyes,” on her introductory, self-titled disc of 1992, she actually supplied the melody to previously unrecorded Cole Porter lyrics. All in all, she has written some 250 songs.

Speaking of her work, Ann quotes Andre Gide: “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” For Ann, that says it all: Singing is a spiritual experience. “I feel a strong sense of grace when I perform,” she says, a sense she first felt when listening to Leontyne Price. “She is a vessel. That’s what I want to be.”

Ann’s most recent recording is “Blues In the Night.” A generous set of audio clips is available here at the Ann Hampton Callaway site. Clicking on her site will give you the audio of “Blue Moon” off her most recent disc. It is a characteristically emotional interpretation of a classic as well as a potent introduction to an artist who has made herself a living vessel of American music’s great tradition.

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