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BWW Interview: Billy Stritch of THE BILLY STRITCH TRIO Talks About His Return to Live Performances at World-Famous Birdland

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Billy Stritch Chats about, Birdland, Marilyn Maye, Cast Party, the Great American Songbook, and More!

BWW Interview: Billy Stritch of THE BILLY STRITCH TRIO Talks About His Return to Live Performances at World-Famous Birdland Nightlife is making a slow and steady return to the City that Never Sleeps. One of the city's most famous jazz institutions, Birdland is making a long-anticipated return to live performances next week with one of New York's most elegant and beloved piano men, Billy Stritch. Birdland has been Stritch's artistic home base for nearly two decades. He has played for some of the biggest names in show business and has been a staple of Monday nights at Jim Caruso's CAST PARTY.

But August 5-7, Billy Stritch and his trio are the headliners at the helm of Birdland's triumphant rebirth. They will play hits from his Billy's Place album, a collection of songs that he played on his live stream "Billy's Place" during the pandemic, as well as many other fantastic tunes.

I caught up with Billy to talk about Birdland and about his star-studded career.

First I want to talk about your upcoming concerts at Birdland with the Billy Stritch Trio. Can you give everyone all the pertinent info?

Okay, here's the pertinent info. So the gig happens from August 5th through 7th. It's five shows. It's one show on Thursday and then two shows on Friday and Saturday. You can get the tickets on the Birdland website, which is birdlandjazz.com.

I'm thrilled because I am working with my trio, which is Tom Hubbard on bass and Mark McLean on drums. It's so great after being confined to doing shows just in my apartment, to be back in front of a live audience. Birdland has really been my performing home in New York for almost 20 years. I'm very comfortable there. But what's really cool about this is it's the first time that I'm going to be headlining on the main stage in the weekend slot. They're doing kind of a slow re-entry into live audiences. I'm just thrilled because it's like an affirmation, a confirmation of the faith the club has in me and the work I've done over the years. It certainly feels like a family.

I want to ask about Billy's Place. How did you come up with the idea? You were one of the first who went online.

What really happened was Jim Caruso and I were about to start our spring season at Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle on the 15th of March. And before the night was over the mayor made the announcement that everything was shutting down. So what came out of that was my friend, Linda Lavin said, "You know, we've got do something online." So she had the idea to do this Wednesday matinee kind of show. And so we went to her apartment on Wednesday, March 18th. I set up my little iPad on a stand. We didn't have mics or anything. And we did a series of Wednesday afternoon shows at three o'clock. The response was just so terrific.

So we got about eight weeks in and Linda said "I'm not sure I want to do it this week." And so I took the spot. It was late April. And I did a show from my apartment. Same thing, no microphones, just an iPad on a stand. And then I said to my partner, Doug, "I need to come up with my own night." So on May 7th, we did our first Billy's Place, which is what I called it.

About a month into it, we got Matt Berman who's a fantastic audio tech guy. And he brought me a little mixing board and a couple of mics. So we started doing it off the laptop with the computer. Then Doug got a program that lets you put the captions up and the graphic stuff. We painted the wall red, we got ring lights. Just making things a little bit better technically.

And so now it's 56 shows and we're still doing it. I'm able to now reach people in London, people in California, new fans that I've gathered. It has really been incredible. People could just turn it on and watch it. And if they can't watch it when I'm live they can watch it later on YouTube. It's been a real shot in the arm for my solo career.

In July of last year, I approached my record company, called 44 Records about me doing a Billy's Place album. They were all for it. And I said, "I want to do it really simply. Just me and a piano and about a dozen songs that I've been doing on the live streams. A couple of originals. A couple of songs that mean something to me right now. And so I went down last August and did it in two days. It was released last year, but we never got a chance to do a release event for it. So I'm kind of turning this engagement at Birdland into a bit of a release for the album. The pandemic sort of kicked me in the ass and made me do a reboot of my own career as a solo artist again.

BWW Interview: Billy Stritch of THE BILLY STRITCH TRIO Talks About His Return to Live Performances at World-Famous Birdland

It's always nice to be a soloist. You never have to compromise with anyone, you know?

I agree. I love accompanying because I love the camaraderie that comes with that. I love sharing the stage with people. I love the fun, I love the collaboration. Because I'm a singer I really understand how to do that. But, you know, there's nothing like just doing your own thing.

When you are playing for different singers who have different styles and phrasings, what is your process? Do you feel that you are acting through the piano with them? How is it different playing for Marilyn Maye as opposed to playing for, say, Christine Ebersole?

Right, right. I get that. I learned more about accompanying a singer through my relationship with Marilyn. I first heard Marilyn Maye when I was in Houston, Texas. I think I was 17. When I first heard her and my jaw was on the floor. I'd never seen a nightclub performer. I'd gone to the theater a lot. My grandmother took me to touring shows and I was very much into the Great American Songbook already, but I had never really been to a nightclub or seen someone in front of a trio just doing a show as herself. So I just sponged all that up. I learned by listening.

About a year later, I made friends with her accompanist and there were some gigs that he wasn't able to do. So I kind of stepped in. I was 18 going on 19. I really learned about staying out of the way, laying down the support, but not leading the singer. Because Marilyn does a lot of rubato. You have to really listen. And the more I started singing, the more I really understood the breathing, the phrasing, all that stuff. Marilyn really laid the groundwork for me. Every singer I work with is slightly different. Christine Ebersole is a little more straight ahead. Right?

Well, she's such an actress, so it's all about storytelling, right?

Exactly. By the time I was working with Christine, I understood what she was doing. I'd seen a lot of that kind of performing. So we fell in very naturally. I mean, the technical part of it is tremendously important. I know a lot of pianists who are fantastic, who play rings around me. But because they are primarily instrumentalists, they don't really know how to back up the singer

Playing for singers is a whole other plate of potatoes.

A whole other thing. I'm very proud that I'm one of the best people, you know. And I've carved out a space for myself. People seek me out for that. The other thing for me is being able to feel a little bit like a shrink. To be able to really hone in on that other person's emotional state and what they're giving out. It's a very vulnerable place on stage. So to be able to really be cued into those emotions.

Also, I've been really lucky that I have been able to be fairly selective with who I choose to collaborate with. The people that I choose and that have chosen me are people that I really get along with. We're really friendly. We have the same sort of musical sensibility. Christine and I laugh like crazy. Linda Lavin and I laugh like crazy. We have a very deep friendship that informs what we do on stage. Paulo Szot, totally different, opera guy, but he comes through musical theater. I've been able to really help him cross the line into cabaret because he's been so open to what I've been able to teach him about that. And we laugh because we get along so well. It's the fun of the collaboration that is really the joy of it for me. And it all really did start with Marilyn laying the groundwork to not just play and sing on my own, but to work with other people and collaborate.

Do you mind if I ask what you took stylistically from your collaborations with Liza Minnelli, who is not only an amazing artist but was such a megastar? It's a whole different part of the business with her, you know?

Yep. I was a fan of Liza from 1973 when Cabaret came out the same year as Liza With a Z. And here I am, this kid in Texas, who was 11 years old. My parents wouldn't let me go see Cabaret because it was an R-rated movie. But that, winter, my grandmother took me and my sisters on a Caribbean cruise. And one day, one of the movies they showed was Cabaret. So I watched it three times in a row. I was just so intrigued with the character and her, and the whole cabaret vibe. It was very risque. It had quite an effect on me.

So jump-cut to 1991. I'm working at this piano bar called Bobo's on West 42nd street. And every time I would go in there, the proprietor, Bob Nahas would say, "Oh, you just missed her. She was in last night." Finally, I show up one night to work, and I see that she's sitting with three friends way in the corner of the room. Ricky, I just had this idea that I was going to meet her. And then knowing that we were going to know each other and, not work together, but we were going to be friends. It seemed quite natural. So instead of playing one of her usual go-to pieces, I launched into the theme from the movie, The Bad and the Beautiful, which was one of her father's films. One of my favorite pieces of music. And I saw her slowly get up across the room and make her way over to me. She sat next to me and she said, "How do you know that song?" I said "That's one of my favorite movies." And she said, "You know, my father directed that movie." "Yeah. I know." And she was like "Hi, I'm Liza.". She was just meeting me on an equal level and wanted to know about me and wanted to get into my brain, my musical head. She hung out at the piano bar all night.

We became friends. Within a week I was doing vocal arrangements on her show at Radio City Music Hall. I mean, it was a whirlwind. It happened really, really fast. And so I started with her as an arranger. And then we became very, very close. And that summer, the show went on tour. And then that fall, she was doing a month of shows with Charles Aznavour in Paris. And she asked me if I wanted to not only go with her, and not only to do arrangements but be in the show. So that's when it crossed over into me performing with her.

I was just mad about her. I'm still mad about her. I love that style of performing. I love the storytelling that she does. I love the fact that she did all those great Aznavour tunes where she could create a character and really do a three-act play within a five-minute song. And being a part of that world was amazing to me. And she brought me into it. We did duets together. She showed me off. She showed me the world. She introduced me to everybody. I met Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren and George Abbott. We stayed at Frank Sinatra's house in Palm Springs twice. You know, It was just an amazing time. I had done a lot of work prior to knowing her. But I have to say and acknowledge quite correctly that she really did put me on the map in terms of my visibility in the show biz world. She really elevated me and showed me off and gave me some tremendous opportunities. Accompanying her was a dream.

Wow, that's a lovely story. As a fan, it makes me very happy to know that she is such a wonderful person with such a heart.

I tell you there's nobody better. Just so loyal and loving and supportive. The thing about Liza is that she has very little ego. She's very much about surrounding herself with the best collaborators and the people who really can make her shine. And giving people opportunities. I learned that if you can get the best people around you it only makes everything better. It's a very valuable lesson to learn for sure. Nobody does it alone. Nobody goes it alone.

BWW Interview: Billy Stritch of THE BILLY STRITCH TRIO Talks About His Return to Live Performances at World-Famous Birdland

I agree with that. I have a question about Jim Caruso's Cast Party. You play for amazing artists who are at the top of their game. At Cast Party, you also play for people who are just beginning, and people who really are just off the street. Walk me through a typical Cast Party from your point of view.

It started just as a kind of a series of Monday nights. I don't think anyone ever thought it was going to turn into what it has turned into. For the most part, we have really good singers or singers who really have a fair amount of ability, even though they may just be starting out. Occasionally we get people who are like, wow, oh my God. But the thing about Cast Party is if you don't like the person, no one's up there too long. Wait three minutes and the temperature's going to change.

It's really gratifying for me to know that I am giving somebody a wonderful experience. They may be in New York for the first time, and all of a sudden they find themselves on the stage of Birdland. It's a very special moment for them. So my job on a Monday night is to serve that person, to help give them the best five minutes that I can give them. And 95% of the time, it's very gratifying and it's very appreciated. Occasionally there are some who don't get it. Some nights are long nights. But I always walk out of there with the sense that people had a good time. People were entertained by a show that they could not see anywhere else. And the people that were on the stage really walk away with some great memories. I'm a giver. What can I say?

Okay. One more question. I don't want to let you go without talking a little about the Great American Songbook, because I really believe that you are one of its most ardent advocates. If you were talking to a young cabaret artist just starting out on the scene, what would you say about those songs? Why do you feel that it's important that we preserve that part of our history?

That's interesting. First of all, most of the songs being written right now, don't have a particular melodic strength. Or for that matter a particular lyric strength. The last time there were really songs on the radio for me was the eighties, maybe into the nineties a little bit. The seventies were great. They were really good melodies. But that doesn't seem to be happening anymore. And you just can't beat the music. If you're young, you may look back and think "I don't want to do this old stuff.", But what I found over the years...I mean, it's a cliche to say they stand the test of time, but as you get older and you have more life experience, the more you realize how finely crafted and how deep some of these lyrics go, you know? There's not a lot of lyrics now that do that.

The other thing I would say is that it's very important to learn the music and the lyrics, as the composer intended it. It's been said a lot before, but I always think if young people are going to learn these songs, go to Ella Fitzgerald, go to Sinatra, go to Fred Astaire, go to some of these recordings. They're all available. Everything's out there on YouTube or iTunes. But learn the melody and learn the lyrics and don't paraphrase the lyrics. I heard a singer sing

"I have eyes for you to give me dirty looks. I have words that do not come from children's books. There's a trick with a knife I'm learning to do, but everything I've got belongs to you."

And you know what? It's not but. It's "AND everything I've got belongs to you" which makes it totally different. That little thing can drive you crazy. I know it would drive Larry Hart, crazy.

You're also a songwriter. You know exactly how important every word is.

Well, the songwriter chooses the right word for a reason. I mean, there's a lot of thought that goes into that. So you have to respect that. That's my main advice. Don't discount what the writer wrote. Stay true to that.

The Billy Stritch Trio plays Birdland Thursday, August 5 at 7 PM, and Friday and Saturday, August 6 & 7 at 7 PM & 9:30 PM. You can get tickets at birdlandjazz.com. You can also get tickets, or find out more about Billy Stritch at billystritch.com.


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