One of the jazz world's great storybook successes of the 21st century, Monheit, who's now 31 and a first-time mom, tells The Courant she never really was comfortable being groomed and mass-marketed as a "jazz princess" after her debut album, "Never Never Land," became an instant success in 2000.
Monheit, the headliner for the Litchfield Jazz Festival's opening night Friday at 9:15, experienced her first taste of what would become a feast of public acclaim in 1998 when, at only 20, she won the first runner-up prize at the Thelonious Monk Institute Vocal Competition.Early in her career, before morphing into a glittering, globe-trotting superstar, the young singer, still a promising work-in-progress, was transfixing audiences in Connecticut.
In 2001, a breakout year for her career, she made a dazzling appearance at opening night of the Litchfield Jazz Festival, as the warm-up act for the legendary Danbury-based Dave Brubeck.
Many thought the new kid had outshone even a fine performance by the world-renowned Brubeck.
Elsewhere, however, not all was hearts and flowers for the emerging sweetheart of jazz.
Along with a loud chorus of hosannas from a mostly enthusiastic press, Monheit simultaneously was savaged by a handful of zealous critics who argued that she was too young, naive and far too pretty to be considered "an authentic jazz singer."
Her privileged, happy childhood in a pleasant Long Island suburb seemed far too idyllic, too untortured by the agony and angst that apparently all "authentic" jazz singers must have.
Contrary to her detractors, Monheit has honed a knack for getting inside the meaning of a song's lyrics, even interpreting melancholic love ballads lamenting heartache and brooding tragedies that she acknowledges she never really has experienced.
In numerous early appearances in Connecticut, whether in her striking debuts at Litchfield or at New Haven's Shubert Theater, her riveting rendition of "Over the Rainbow" made strong men and women tear up. On her very next selection, whether it was a chic but cheeky romp through "Cheek to Cheek," or a slick, swift swim through the verbally shark-infested lyrics of "Waters of March," Monheit, a model of versatility, swung hard, recalling her greatest childhood idol, Ella Fitzgerald.
The singer, who's schooled in music theory, has a new disc out, "The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me" (Concord). Its selections are divided between hip, intimate jazz pieces and lushly arranged romantic ballads.
She'll be backed Friday night by her road band, featuring her husband, drummer Rick Montalbano, pianist Michael Kanan and bassist Neal Miner.
But the big news in her life — transcending all else, she says — is the birth of her son, Jack, on May 9, 2008, and her happy home life in their lakefront home in Rome, N.Y.
In a telephone interview, it's apparent that for Monheit, all roads lead to Rome and little Jack, and that motherhood changes everything.
Q: How has becoming a mom affected you?
A: It's the best thing that ever happened to me. Every wonderful thing that everybody says about motherhood is true.
Q: How do you and your husband, Rick, manage your careers now with a baby on board?
A: We just take Jack, who's now 14 months old, everywhere we go on the road. Jack's been all over the world with us, and even celebrated his first birthday in Taipei. He's been to Europe twice, Japan once and all over the United States. He's already got more stamps on his passport than most adults.
Q: But this must be a real balancing act, especially on the road?
A: We have a friend who travels with us and watches Jack when Ricky and I are both on stage. There's a lot to do on the road, of course, dealing with the press, traveling and tending to stupid things I have to do, like my stupid hair. I actually have to worry about looking nice when I'm on the road, at least when I'm onstage. I'm hardly the glamour puss that I used to be. Well, when I'm performing on stage, I have to be. But offstage, no way!
Q: Does Rick pitch in with the dad duties?
A: Oh, man, he's amazing. I had a C-section. So I didn't even change Jack's diapers until he was three days old. Ricky did it all, and pitches right in.
Q: You were college sweethearts at Manhattan School of Music, right? How did you meet, through music?
A: We played together at a rehearsal, and he just spotted me and said, 'That's for me!' and totally pursued me. That had never happened to me before. I was always like a frumpy nerd, the weird theater girl in high school, wearing something that none of the other kids would wear, like red lipstick. ... So boys thought, "Well, that girl is weird and scary." But Ricky just totally pursued me, and I was like, "What is up with this unbelievably gorgeous, talented boy staring at me and hovering around me with his glasses off?" We just fell in love when we were 20 and have been together for almost 12 years.
Q: Do you feel that you've been stereotyped in the business because of being a beautiful, young woman at the expense of recognition of your musical talent, training and knowledge?
A: I think that used to happen. But I don't think it will anymore because I'm over 30, have had a baby and am not like a little sex kitten anymore. Well, I was never a little sex kitten. I was more like a voluptuous sex kitten. I don't see myself that way anymore. ... Believe me, I will never put down my false eyelashes and stilettos. I'm always going to be like a glamorous, sexy woman. But I'm not just this little young thing anymore. I'm proud of being an adult woman and a mother, and I'd like that to be what I'm represented as now. Like all the fuss in the studio with somebody there saying, "Make her look young. Make her look young." Oh, my God. Stuff that, please! That can just go away.
Q: Thirty-one is not actually ancient, you know?
A: No, it's not in the real world. But in this business, it is, unfortunately.
Q: How do you deal with people in the business who treat you that way?
A: If there's a problem, I just don't work with them again. But that happens less and less.
Q: Does the experience of being a mom have any impact on the way you sing or on your stage persona?
A: Yes. I'm so much freer onstage, now that I've had a baby. Once you have a child, that's the most important thing in your life by far. Work now is just a job, so I'm going to enjoy it. It's not like the world's going to end if I take a solo and sing a bad note. And now I just say whatever the hell I want between songs.
Q. It sounds very liberating.
A. Early in my career, there was a lot of pressure to be a perfect jazz princess and be in my gowns and my red lipstick and to act a certain scripted way. I was even told once that I needed to act aloof onstage because that's what attracts the audience. Now I'm just like, "Screw it!" In real life, I'm really talkative and like to be funny and make people laugh. Now, some people are saying, "You're talking too much on stage." I just say, "I'm having fun. They're laughing. So what's the problem?"
•THE LITCHFIELD JAZZ FESTIVAL runs Friday through Sunday at Kent School in Kent. Tickets are $35 (lawn) and $55 (tent) a day. Three-day passes are available for $195 for tent seating; a three-day VIP pass for $350 includes front seats in the tent, preferred parking and the Friday-night gala. A Friday-only VIP pass is $150.. Information and tickets: www.litchfieldjazzfest.com or 860-567-4162.
July 30, 2009
The Hartford Courant
Photo by Steven Sussman