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BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

"I just love the emotion of the lyric and a well-told story and a well thought out feeling."

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

It's no surprise that Nicole Henry's new show at Feinstein's/54 Below is named after her new single FEELING GOOD! Reimagining the classic composition to fit her style, both artistic and personal, the jazz singer who is on the list of favorites of many music lovers is ready to celebrate a return to live music, a return to the stages where that music happens, and a return to a life everyone missed during the days of the show business shutdown. An optimist with a passion for dance, a love of emotion-laden ballads, and an understanding of the jazz foundation upon which she has built her career and her fan base, Nicole Henry has enjoyed a cross-pollination of her artistry, moving with ease from the jazz clubs to the cabaret rooms, introducing her OG fans to a new corridor in her house of talent, and welcoming to the fold new fans by opening windows into the world of jazz. Like any true leader, Henry uses the examples created by her work and her ardor to teach the people in the audience that a little drama in their jazz can be cool, and a little jazz in their Broadway can be hot. So the audiences that will be re-entering 54 Below on only the third day back can plan on an exciting, emotional, spirited night celebrating life and, well, feeling good.

Before Nicole hits the stage on June 19th, I asked if we could chat on the phone about preconceived notions about her music, power ballads, and the gun show to be seen every time she wears a sleeveless gown.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Nicole Henry, welcome to Broadway World! How are you today?

I am fantastic!

I'm thrilled to be talking to you, I'm a big fan. I can't wait for your new show.

I'm really excited for it. I'm very excited just to be back on stage in New York and just in the room, you know? I don't know if you saw the Whitney show.

I did!

After that one, I'm like, okay, you can't go backward. You have to just keep raising the bar.

How long has it been since you were on a stage?

I actually did a concert, May 12th at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. And in March, I was at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida. They started doing cabaret shows, I think they might've started in January, but socially distant, everybody wearing masks or, at their own respective tables. So I guess March was the first time.

So you've had a taste and you're ready for more

Perfect! Yes! (Laughing)

You're a world-acclaimed jazz singer, which is a very specific niche in vocal entertainment. When you were a little girl dreaming of being a singer was that the genre of music you thought you wanted to sing?

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below Nooooo not whatsoever. I think like so many people my age, it was all about Whitney Houston, big epic ballads, or maybe an Aretha Franklin soulful vibe. I don't know straight-ahead jazz really. 2001 was truly the first time that I understood and heard vocal jazz in a way that made sense to me as a genre. And I couldn't believe that I was blind to this world. I remember when I decided to sing full time - because I didn't study music at college, although I went to a great university that has a wonderful music department, The University of Miami, but I thought I was going to be playing my guitar and writing songs and seeing what I could put into the world.

As I was doing that, two friends give me two CDs - one was Billie Holiday Lady in Satin, which was her last album, where her voice was completely affected and she was twenty percent of the singer she was, as far as technicality, but the emotion was all there. I also received a Nina Simone CD, an older one, and for the life of me, I could not connect with what these women were doing, hearing it on CD, I just didn't understand it. But then I saw jazz live and heard it by a female and male vocalist and all of a sudden it made all the sense in the world to me. I fell in love with the genre and I did everything I could to sing the only jazz for about five years. It's amazing how you are a product of your environment and if nobody exposes you to certain things you just don't know about them

Do you think that people that aren't familiar with jazz as a genre should start out with live jazz shows instead of CDs?

Absolutely! I think anyone should start out with live music - you get to feel the artist. If I had never heard jazz live in 2001, I don't know when I ever would have fallen in love with the genre. When I started singing, people would ask me (when I said I'm a full-time singer)," Oh what do you sing, jazz?" (Laughing) And I actually would get offended! (Laughing) In my mind, I was like, "Huh?! That sounds so old and boring!" (Laughing) I don't know, it was just something that I took offense to - it was like, just because I'm a black singer, I have to sing jazz. I was like, "No, I sing what I write: I play guitar and I write songs." It's really funny how our perception can be way off base when we really don't know when we're not exposed, and that goes for anything in this world. We're in the most prevalent social and racial issue and people judge when they don't know.

How fun is it when people have their perceptions bust wide open and they have to change their mind on the spot!

Oh! I live for that! One of the things that I have tried to live by is those four agreements, which is: don't assume, don't take anything personally, be impeccable with your word, and always do your best. When people assume (and we do it every day because we're taught to have bias) it's always great to see those perceptions busted. (Laughing) I think if someone were to come hear me perform jazz, I think jazz purists would probably call me jazz-like instead of more, a little more pop with certain approaches when I sing jazz. But it's jazz, nonetheless.

Having been somebody that had the experience of having your own preconceived notion about jazz changed by a performer, has it ever gotten back to you that your performance has changed somebody and their perception of the work?

Absolutely. People have often said to me, over the years... I'll get an email or people will come after a concert and say, "My friend bought me and said I would like it, but I didn't think I liked jazz, and now I understand. I thank you so much." I always smile from a deeper place when people say that to me because I understand,

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

You have a new single out. It is this breathtaking new arrangement of "Feeling Good."

Thank you!

You're welcome. I just love it. When it's time to reinvent a famous song that has had more than one famous arrangement, where do you go to, to discover the new story that you want to tell?

I go to my band. That's where I go. My band and Miami is just incredible. We've worked together for over 10 years and I'll come with an idea... like with "Feeling Good"... when I really looked at the lyrics (because I had to sing it the regular way for some event, it was requested) but I thought about the lyrics... the lyrics are all about nature, ALL about nature and relating everything that you're feeling, whatever you're going through in life, you're feeling like free, like nature is. And to me, feeling free is being on the dance floor. I just love house music. So I wanted to think of this tribal thing, that's freedom to me, so I kind of came up with this percussive... (Starts drumming on the table with her hands) I played that out for my bass player and I gave him that idea for the chorus "It's a new dawn! Guh! It's a new day! Guh!" and he created this amazing arrangement and we started rehearsing it. This was five years ago, and two years ago we recorded it, and the CD was ready to be released in March of last year and COVID happened. And it made no sense to release a song called Feeling Good.

Well, we're out of quarantine now, and everybody's feeling good, so the timing is perfect.

It really feels that way too. I do feel that we're all ready for that.

Up here in New York, it's like the end of prohibition - everybody's out in the streets having fun.

Exactly! I can't wait to see it!

So, you're a jazz singer who likes to hit the dance floor to house music. What's the best Whitney Houston remix?

OOOOOOH!! Okay. Let's see. That's funny that you mentioned that because I have a friend of mine who worked with Junior on a remix to this song... "It's Not Right But It's Okay" - That's the first one that comes to mind.

Because it's the best!

Yeah. (Laughing, and then singing a portion of "It's Not Right But It's Okay" while I swoon) It's really good.

Jazz is really popular internationally. What countries outside of the States have provided you with your most dedicated fans?

Japan.

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

I knew you were going to say that - the Japanese just get jazz.

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below They really do. I understand why... of course, it has to do with history, and the time when Americans literally brought jazz over during the war, it was an impactful time. Those people who were alive then had that relationship to it, but it just stayed with them. And I think it's such a personal, intellectual type of music because it allows you to really take time with not only the music but also the lyric. I think the fact that jazz songs are done over and over and over again just adds more meaning - each time you hear the song, you're able to look at it in new ways, kind of like studying a specimen over and over again for decades. You really get deeper into that art.

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

There are those who are scared of jazz music because they don't think they're going to get it. What would you say to somebody who might, perhaps hastily, have made this judgment to get them to come to one of your shows and listen to some jazz?

I would say a lot of jazz songs are Broadway musical songs. I just did a show called It Never Entered My Mind in Broward and it was all songs from Broadway that became popular in the jazz idiom. So if they're familiar with Broadway, they should certainly feel comfortable with that. Then I would say there's a reason that it's stuck around for a hundred years. There's a reason that it's still around. So, give it a try - get a bottle of wine and come on in. (Both laughing)

Lately, you've been playing some cabaret rooms. Do you find a difference in the audience response from a jazz audience to a cabaret audience?

Absolutely! Absolutely, absolutely! And it's a different performance, and I'm not afraid of saying that. It's clearly a different delivery - it is more dramatic - cabaret rooms allow you to bring out that Broadway drama. Just for a moment, I thought if my jazz fans come to the cabaret room they're going to think I am two-faced or something like that, but I don't feel that way at all. I think anyone that knows or has seen me and really understood what I was doing, they see that in me, that theatrical element to what I put into my jazz. So it really is a natural thing for me. I really have enjoyed working with a coach of mine and a director, WILL NUNZIATA - he's really allowed me to push the drama and helped me put a mirror to myself and say, "This is who you are! Go for the sexiness! Go for the humor!" That's been fun.

I think that there's a common misconception about jazz because there are jazz singers that are laser-focused on technique and improvisation, who eschew a lot of emotion into their performances, but you have always focused on bringing emotion into your work.

Thank you.

I think that permits you to float back and forth between the jazz clubs and the cabaret rooms.

I really appreciate that. I just got chills. Thank you for that compliment.

Also, you lean into the drama because you're an actor as well.

You know my dream of becoming a singer was just singing ballads, all day; that's all I wanted to do and that's because I just love the emotion of the lyric and a well-told story and a well thought out feeling. I studied acting in college but I think we are who we are... I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin and singing gospel. If you listen to Aretha Franklin, everything she sings is gospel, you know what I mean? You believe her. I think that was my training ground for not throwing away a lyric. And, of course, Whitney. There's a reason we talk... there's a reason we open our mouth.

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

You have a new club act coming up at 54 Below opening on the 19th, and this is brand new, it's not your Whitney Houston show. Put a picture in my head of what you'll be presenting to the fans on the 19th with "Feeling Good!".

Well, feeling good is definitely the goal of the show. And feeling good obviously has a lot of highlights and good feeling and energy. At the show, we're not trying to ignore what is politically in this world. Of course, June is Pride Month, and June 19th is Juneteenth, so I am going to touch a little bit on what we all know is in our world, but at the same time, I believe strongly that the world is full of mostly great things and great people. So most of the show is highlighting amazing feel-good moments in life; we'll walk through the celebratory feeling of all being in the room together, as well as taking the time to see how we're coming out of this better and stronger.

You just mentioned Pride - you have a big gay following. Have you played any Pride events? Is that something that you'd like to do?

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below Wow! Now that you mention it, in 2006 I was invited - I think that was my first New York City performance - at Bryant Park. Oh my gosh, I can see the dress I wore - it was white - and I sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow, a different version, like a Brazilian Samba. That was my first time ever doing something for Pride in New York. I've done Pride events in Miami Beach, in fact, I think the first Pride Parade, the first pride weekend that we had on Miami beach, I did something!

We need more Nicole Henry at Pride!

Let's do it! Maybe next year! I think I'll be in town on Sunday! Are they doing anything here?

I don't know - I know that people want to party, but I also know that people want to be careful - they're still a little nervous. So, some of us older gays are just going to stay home with our husbands.

(Both laughing)

Which is good! They're not all parties, so hopefully, there will be plenty of time for all of it.

We're going to celebrate Pride by being proud that we all wore our masks.

Exactly!

Artists tend to gravitate toward inspiration from other artists with whom we have commonality like gender. As a woman, who are the male jazz artists that inspire you?

Ooooh! Good question. One of my favorite male vocalists - and I have to point out vocalists mostly - Andy Bey has just a wonderful delivery, he's just marvelous. Little Jimmy Scott as well. I would say those two are precious voices and jazz style. I always liked Chet Baker's delivery. And then when it comes to jazz/Broadway, you can't take anything away from Sammy Davis Jr.

My favorite.

Really?

Yes!

He goes under-acknowledged.

I agree. And I don't know why.

I think it was the time... as a black man and a member of The Rat Pack.. of course, we had Nat "King" Cole, who really shined as an individual. So I asked myself if Sammy was just under the shadows of The Rat Pack.

But also Nat "King" Cole was very wholesome.

Oooooh...

Sammy Davis was a little devilish.

Yeah. And he married a white woman. So they weren't really trying to embrace that.

Not in that era. Now... I love hearing how you work with your band. Do you guys ever get together and just improvise and see what happens?

It doesn't happen a lot, but now and then Nicole will be running, oh, five minutes late... so I walk in and the band, they're just playing, coming up with something... or at a soundcheck. Generally, we're targeted - everybody's busy and older, so we are targeted when we come in. When I have a new song, I'll say, "Okay, I want to do this, here's an idea," and then we'll spend a good 30 to 45 minutes just developing an idea. That's really so fun.

So here's the million-dollar question that everybody wants to know. What's your arm workout?

(Laughing heartily) That's so cute! I love it! Thank you for asking. That's the best thing, right after a show, people walk up... "Oh my goodness, your arms!" And I'm like, "Oh wait.. my arms... not the music, the show, my arms?" (Laughing) I actually don't have a particular arm workout. For years I think my arms shaped themselves from just running. As of late, I think yoga. If I have to do another downward dog... (Laughing) I think it's the yoga. I started doing a little bit of weight training on my arms. But I think the biggest recommendation is: be my father's daughter.

BWW Interview: Nicole Henry of FEELING GOOD at Feinstein's/54 Below

Aaaaaahhhhh.

That's how it happened. He's a tall, six-foot-nine, handsome, athletic man, and he always told my sister and I, who were tall, "Stand up straight, hold your stomach in," and that's where I got my posture. I have my Dad's arms.

Thanks, Dad!

For a lot of things.

Nicole, I want to thank you for chatting with us today at Broadway World. I am so happy that you could stop by for this chat.

I really appreciate it. Everybody at Broadway World has been so sweet to me and supportive. So I just wanna say thank you again, truly,

Nicole Henry FEELING GOOD! plays Feinstein's/54 Below on June 19th and June 27th. For information and reservations visit the 54 Below website HERE.

Learn more about Nicole and upcoming releases and shows by visiting the Nicole Henry website HERE.

Photos provided by Nicole Henry.


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