Talking Story with the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein

by Karen Rose

Originally published in Big Island Weekly January 2014

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Next Friday, December 6th, the Kahilu Theater presents the Inaugural Kahilu TheaterMasquerade with singer, composer, and musical curator Michael Feinstein at the HiltonReferred to as the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook”, multi Grammy and Emmy nominated artist Michael Feinstein is considered the foremost exponent of American standards.

Performing over 200 shows annually in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House,Buckingham Palace, and the White House, Feinstein headlines the Big Island’s Great Gatsby inspired fete of glitter and glamour.

Feinstein began playing piano by ear at the age of five. Beginning with several years of apprenticeship under Ira Gershwin, Feinstein mastered command of American musical history and founded the Great American Songbook Initiative whose mission it is to bring the music of the Great American Songbook to today’s young people and to preserve it for future generations.

Big Island Weekly spoke with Feinstein about pivotal moments in his career, how he manages to do it all, and why he loves the Roaring 20s.

BIW – You have so many monumental projects that you’re involved with. The Great American Songbook Initiative alone is several projects in one, and the Song Travels program on NPR is another. How do you manage to do it all, and do it so well? Do you ever sleep?

MF – It’s all about planning and pacing for me. There’s a lot that I’ve chosen to do and I feel very lucky to have been given so many opportunities and I want to take advantage of as many of them as I can, while I can. Because life is ever changing and so I try not to take anything for granted. Therefore I do tend to stay very busy and I don’t seem to get much sleep. But that’s okay.

BIW – Becoming Ira Gershwin’s assistant must have been a pivotal moment for you. Are there any other major events that you feel significantly influenced the direction of your career?

MF – Certainly meeting Liza Minnelli was a watershed moment because she took me under her wing so to speak, got me my first national publicity and hosted my New York debut. If it weren’t for her I may not have received the recognition that I got at that time that enabled me to have the career that I have now. Also, meeting Rosemary Clooney was very important to me. She was my favorite singer and having the opportunity to work with her was a fantastic experience, so those are certainly two highlights.

BIW – If you had a time machine and could be a musician in another time period, when would that be?

MF – Well probably the 20s because even though it was an odd time for the world, there were so many creative minds and so much creative spirit. Not only the music, but the literature and the birth of motion pictures technology, I think that was a time that was extraordinary. So I would say the 20s. Maybe the 30s, but the 20s were a time when so many things were created that still affects us to this day.

BIW – You’ve worked with an exhaustive list of talent throughout your career. Who is the one person that you’ve never worked with that you would like to?

MF – “I don’t know how to answer that, there’s nobody that comes to mind. I loved Pat Ethel Waters. I would have loved to have heard her perform but I wouldn’t necessarily desire to perform with her. I don’t have a great desire to perform with other people. There are people I’d love to meet and know, but I don’t feel a desire to sing duets with a lot of people whose work I revere. I suppose if I were to collaborate with a composer I would have loved to have known any number of people. When it comes to songwriters it would have been great to meet and know Cole Porter, but there’s no person in particular that I could talk about collaborating with because that’s a different thing to explain.”

BIW – Tell me about what we can look forward to at next Friday’s, Inaugural KahiluTheater Masquerade event.

MF – “The performance that I’ll be doing will be with a five piece band. The event sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun because it’s themed the Great Gatsby. Because of that it certainly will allow me to perform music that I like in a slightly more contemporary fashion. One of the things I love about working with a jazz combo like the one I’ll have on my appearance in Hawaii is that we have flexibility so I can perform things at the piano spontaneously or play off the audience and also do improvisational things with the band. We have some great set pieces that we do as well so I think the combination of all that will make it a fun and unique show. I haven’t been in Hawaii for a while. I did appear with Honolulu Symphony, but that’s been a few years, so it will be fun to come back and do this kind of show. This will give me the opportunity to do a show that reflects my current musical life and soul. It should be a great deal of fun to be there.