Cabaret isn’t just a style of music, it’s an attitude, an aesthetic, an experience.
So it is with Juneau Cabaret, an evening of performances by more than a dozen local singers and accompanists that’s been presented four times a year since August 2009. The next one is scheduled for Sunday night at 7 p.m. in the Rockwell Ballroom, upstairs in the Old Elks Hall at 109 Franklin Street downtown.
Organized by Laura Haywood, Tom Locher and Bobbi Mitchell, Juneau Cabaret highlights the music of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, presented through an artform known for its personal expressiveness and relaxed approach.
“Cabaret is an experience where the singer is alone on the stage with an instrument, and they’re making an intimate connection with the audience using elements of the jazz storytelling tradition, and the theater tradition,” Locher said. “But it’s not a big splash-down production, it’s more of a focused interpretation of the songs.”
“Its their own interpretation,” Haywood agreed. “It’s not ‘I’ve listened to so-and-so do this song and I want to do it exactly like she did it.’ We discourage that.”
Sunday’s performance will feature local singers Dan Wayne, Bobbi Mitchell, Derrick Grimes, Heather Mitchell, Becky Bear, Jacque Farnsworth, John Haywood, Katrina Lee, Madi Nolan, Mimi Herrmann, Therese Thibodeau, Ardyne Womack, Tom Locher, David Sheakley and Tom Melville. Accompanists will be Locher, Farnsworth, Sheakley, Beverly Haywood, Rob Cohen, Sandra Delong, John Schumann
Haywood, who organized the first event in 2009, said she got the idea for Juneau Cabaret after her husband John participated in Juneau Jazz & Classics’ cabaret workshop with popular visiting musician Barney McClure. (McClure makes repeated visits to Juneau to lead these workshops, with the next round coming up Oct. 20-25, visit www.jazzandclassics.org for more.)
“Barney would come and Barney would go and everybody would think, ‘What’s next?” Haywood said. “So I thought, ‘This is what we should do.’”
She didn’t know Locher at the time, but singer Beatrice Caujolle brought him along as her accompanist at the first event, and he quickly became an integral part of the lineup, accompanying several singers at each performance since then.
“He’s such an amazing musician, and so relaxed,” Haywood said of Locher. “He puts singers at their ease, and he’s so generous with his time. Juneau Cabaret would be nothing without Tom.”
For this Sunday’s event, Locher will be stepping out of his comfort zone and performing as one of the singers, along with drummer David Sheakley, also a cabaret mainstay. The duo will sing two songs and accompany themselves.
“Both of them have been stalwarts and have performed in nearly every Juneau Cabaret,” Haywood said. “People are very excited to hear them take the microphone for a change.”
First time cabaret performers in addition to Locher and Sheakley are Mimi Herrmann and Jacque Farnsworth, who, like Locher, is a longtime accompanist. Others, such as John Haywood and Bobbi Mitchell, are frequent cabaret performers. And others, such as Dan Wayne, are singers who are making an adjustment to the new form -- in his case, putting aside some of the formality of opera singing for the fluidity of cabaret.
Showcasing a mix of veteran and inexperienced singers is part of what the event is all about, Haywood and Locher said.
“(From the beginning) what we wanted was some veterans – because they have the experience and the material and that’s a draw – and new people who have never performed in front of an audience before,” Locher said. “Or people who used to sing and wanted to return to singing, wanted a way back in.”
In the latter group is Ardyne Womack, who sang in the Rockwell Ballroom nearly 50 years ago, when it was known as the Purple Bubble Room. Locher, who grew up in Juneau, said the long history of the Rockwell Ballroom as a performance space is one of the reasons he appreciates the venue.
“Ardyne sang there and now shes singing there again in Juneau Cabaret in her 70s,” he said.
The event has also drawn in some of Juneau’s younger performers, thanks in part to the work of local music teachers such as Megan Felts, Mary DeSmet and Missouri Smyth. In many cases the younger singers don’t know much about the genre at first, Haywood said.
“I think it’s great when the kids come in -- they just want to sing the songs they’ve been listening to, but we really like to encourage them to try something old — new to them — and they really come to love it.”
The popularity of last weekend’s “Who’s your Diva?” event, established three years ago by former Juneau Lyric Opera director Francis Field, has likely been fed by the success of Juneau Cabaret, and by Locher’s Juneau Divas event, which, like Juneau Cabaret, has been held four times a year since 2009. All three events provide performance opportunities for Juneau singers that didn’t exist five years ago, and there’s quite a bit of cross fertilization between them.
Unlike JLO’s “Who’s your Diva?” and Locher’s Jazz Divas, Juneau Cabaret features both male and female singers, and focuses specifically on cabaret music, rather than pop.
According to Merriam Webster, the word “cabaret” comes an Old French word for “tavern.” By the early 1900s it was understood to mean a restaurant or night club, and by extension, the type of performers who played there, usually a single female singer accompanied by a piano player (think Nicole Kidman draping herself over the piano in the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film “Moulin Rouge”).
“A lot of smoke, dark, kind of sexy, you know, lots of booze -- that’s kind of the tradition it came from,” Haywood said.
In the US the cabaret wave came a little later, and took on its own character as it developed, bringing in American influences such as jazz and musical theater. Cole Porter wrote many of his songs for Broadway, for example, and also for Hollywood films.
“One thing that really inspires both Tom and me is the idea of keeping these songs alive,” Haywood said. “Music from the ‘30s ‘40s and 50s, during that flowering of songwriting. Really there’s nothing like that anymore.”
The songs are usually lyrically rich, Locher said, and more sophisticated than the pop music that developed after the 1950s.
“Music from that era was the last pop music marketed for adults in the US,” he said. “After the war, teenagers started to have their own money and it was all about marketing to teenagers, that’s who was buying the records and listening to the radio. Until then it was adults.”
One of the songs Locher and Sheakley will be performing is Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” made popular by Nat King Cole in 1946. Also in the lineup is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a jazz standard from the 1920s, and three songs by Jerome Kern: “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Long Ago (And Far Away),” “All the Things You Are.”
“I love that those three Jerome Kern songs are going to get performed and heard by teenagers,” Locher said.
Locher said he was inspired to sing in Juneau Cabaret following a workshop he took this past summer at Sitka Fine Arts Camp with jazz vocalists Dee Daniels and Charenee Wade. He took the workshop as a way to strengthen his informal role as a vocal coach for the singers he accompanies, a role he may be expanding in the near future through his own series of workshops. At the end of the Sitka workshop, he performed with Native Jazz Quartet members Ed Littlefield, Christian Fabian and Reuel Lubag -- a nerve-wracking but satisfying experience.
“I felt very exposed,” Locher said. “But it went well because I wanted it to, and I worked really hard at it. And I had a great trio (behind me).”
Haywood saw photos of Locher singing posted on Facebook and roped him in for the cabaret.
Haywood acts as producer for the events, Locher is music director and Bobbie Mitchell is stage manager, as well as a singer who can give new performers advice during rehearsals.
Haywood said though the atmosphere is relaxed and the environment is supportive, she’s thinking about starting a junior version to get more novices involved.
“We developed Juneau Cabaret to be a safe atmosphere, where people could screw up and not feel too bad, but we’re thinking of starting something that’s even more that way, sort of a Juneau Cabaret with training wheels,” she said. “I don’t think of Juneau Cabaret as the big time or anything, but still, it’s a good-sized crowd.”
Admission to Sunday’s show is pay-as-you-can, and audience members can order dinner and drinks to their tables. For more information, visit www.juneaucabaret.net.