The Shape of Jazz to Come

Some time ago, when jazz music completely lost its relevance to the record-buying public, the recording industry decided that the best way to sell units to jazz music’s two remaining demographics (college juniors and party hostesses who need background music for dinner) was either by a) repackaging the seminal recordings of the jazz masters in “Best Of” compilations, or b) finding a fresh-faced youngster to belt out a bunch of standards.

Back in the 80’s, Harry Connick Jr. filled the fresh-faced-youngster role just fine, but he inevitably got too old, and what was once seen as cute (blue eyes, foppish gelled hair) just seemed sad. Around the same period, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis also stepped up to the bandstand, and he was more promising, playing the classics with respectful dignity. Still, the serious Mr. Marsalis made it feel too much like homework, and eventually it became a mark of real intellect to say that Mr. Marsalis’ Lincoln Center program was too square and that Mr. Marsalis was on the outs.

More recently, the talented Diana Krall has made inroads, winning Grammys and performing with Tony Bennett. But an even more promising upstart may be Jane Monheit, a 23-year-old jazz singer who was the first runner-up in the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition in 1998 and who, for the past year, has been playing New York’s most prestigious venues, from the Blue Note to Carnegie Hall. She began a stand at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday, May 1.

Ms. Monheit is practically Ms. Krall’s counterpoint. While Ms. Krall’s voice projects (somewhat scarily) mystery and sensuality, Ms. Monheit’s connotes openness and accessibility. On her debut album, Never Never Land , Ms. Monheit sings with such directness–without ornament or a hint of irony–you might wonder if it’s not some kind of put-on. It’s not. That became clear when I met up with Ms. Monheit on a recent afternoon, at Henry’s restaurant at 105th Street and Broadway.

Ms. Monheit was sipping an iced tea at a window table. A blue-jean jacket covered her round figure. With her flowing, dark-brown hair and full, pillowy lips, she was the picture of Botticellian bliss.

“It’s just been such a wonderful surprise,” Ms. Monheit said as she looked out the window onto Broadway. “I always had a lot of confidence in myself, and I knew I would always be able to work, but I didn’t expect to get to this level. I always knew I could sing at weddings and at clubs around town and maybe doing high-paying corporate gigs. That would have been a perfectly fulfilling career for me.”

A native of Oakdale, Long Island, Ms. Monheit lives on the Upper West Side with two cats, Cindy and Sophie, and her fiancé, who is also the drummer in her touring band. “I was always one of the theater kids in high school,” she said. “I always had to perform. I never felt self-conscious. Maybe it’s a confidence thing. I was quite the little showoff.”

You might think that, at 23, Ms. Monheit wouldn’t have a lot of life experience to use in her rendering of grizzled jazz standards.

“The funny thing about it is, whatever age you are, it’s the oldest you’ve ever been,” Ms. Monheit said. “So it’s possible to feel knowledgeable and jaded about all the subtle emotions involved in life and love at 23. But it’s not like I’m going out and singing ‘Lush Life’ every night. For the most part, I’m coming from joy. Ella was someone who came from joy.”

Ms. Monheit’s ride to the top of Billboard ‘s jazz charts hasn’t been entirely without bumps. A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine did a partial take-down of Ms. Monheit in a feature that, while acknowledging her talent, implied she was a concoction of the record industry.

“I think there’s a lot of valid opinion about where jazz is headed now,” Ms. Monheit said. “There are a lot of people out there doing incredible, innovative things, and then there are those people like me who choose to carry the torch and celebrate all of this history, and that’s a choice that I make in my music because it makes me happy. Sometimes people may think that I’m a creation of the record company and that they tell me what to sing. That is so far from the truth. I choose all my repertoire. No one ever tells me what to do artistically. Ever. No one tells me what to say, no one tells me how to look. I’m highly trained and educated in jazz. If this career stuff hadn’t happened, I would have gone on to get my Ph.D. So of course I’m making my own decisions. And a lot of people want to hear the stuff I am singing.”

Ms. Monheit’s publicist came up to the table with Henry, the Henry in Henry’s.

“Jane, did you meet Henry? Henry, Jane Monheit,” the publicist said.

“Jane, you must be someone famous. What are you famous for?” Henry asked.

“I’m not at all,” Ms. Monheit said. “I’m nobody. I’m just little Jane. Nobody else.”

–William Berlind

Oh, Michi, What a Pity You Don’t Understand

“Get Out Your Shoulder Pads,” the headline cried, splashed across the top of the New York Times Arts page on April 25. “The 80’s Are Here.” Seven months after the home-video release of American Psycho , five years after A Flock of Seagulls embarked on a reunion tour, Michiko Kakutani– The Times’ Pulitzer-winning book reviewer and erstwhile “Culture Zone” reporter–had studied the jottings in her Critic’s Notebook and come to the conclusion that an 80’s revival is upon us.

Anyone unfamiliar with Ms. Kakutani’s output might have guessed that the newly installed Times Capsule had cracked and somehow spilled the preserved specimen of a trend piece into the present paper. But no, the stainless-steel cocklebur remains intact. Moreover, the capsule’s contents were only picked out in late 1999–which was already two years after news of the 80’s retro trend had reached the pages of the Charleston Daily Mail.

But back in 1997, Ms. Kakutani’s attention was occupied with diagnosing a new “American age of adolescence”–pegged to the then-two-year-old Kids . A year before that, she was exploring a “new brand of tourism that offers bourgeois audiences a voyeuristic peep at an alien subculture”; rumor had it this was called “slumming.”

Ms. Kakutani has cut back on the culture-vulture stuff since bagging her 1998 Pulitzer. But the 80’s revival piece reassured readers that her talents as a trend spotter, thinker and prose stylist are the same as ever–that is, nonexistent. The dispatch sprawls to 1,850 words, words including “Seinfeldian,” “eye-candy,” “appetitive” and “Pussy.” It is a torrent of the obvious (“nineties grunge is gone”), the irrelevant (Dave Longaberger) and the pretentious (Anne Robinson’s duds “reflect a nervous society’s obsession with power and control”). She lumps together “the women around Bill Clinton”–neatly eliding serious time-space problems in connecting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Denise Rich and Monica Lewinsky–as sartorial “throwbacks to that era”: Ms. Lewinsky in “tight dresses,” Mrs. Rich in “cleavage-baring gowns” and Mrs. Clinton in “power suits.”

Suits! One wonders what Ms. Kakutani thinks female Senators were wearing to work in the years between the 80’s and the arrival of 80’s retro. Then one wonders just how thin a sliver of the women’s-wear Venn diagram is left over, anyway, once that trio has been dealt with. Then one flings the paper across the room.

How does Ms. Kakutani manage to grate so? The trick lies in a combination of ignorance and arrogance. She reports on the culture–your culture, my culture–as if she were returning from the Ucayali Basin with a particularly interesting collection of beetles: I, Michiko Kakutani, having studied certain tell-tale patterns in clothing, have concluded that designers are drawing from the styles of the 80’s. That’s nice; the rest of us had to go by the fact that the designers were all on E! 18 months ago screaming, “We’re doing the 80’s!”

In an era when you can get appalling quantities of information, especially about pop culture, without leaving your chair, it takes a conscious and affirmative effort to remain so clueless. Reading Ms. Kakutani is like getting high-school Sex Ed lectures from a middle-aged nun: Um, O.K., but the kids have moved past that now. The ironic mullet is over . We’ve got race riots, a Bush in the White House, a skidding stock market and a new Right Said Fred album in the pipeline … it’s time for early 90’s retro! I’m sure Ms. Kakutani will confirm it for us–in, say, 2005. Right after she wraps up her Razor scooter essay.

–Tom Scocca The Shape of Jazz to Come