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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The New York Times > Arts > Music > An Appreciation: Bobby Short, Keeping the Party Going

The New York Times > Arts > Music > March 22, 2005
Bobby Short, Keeping the Party Going

There are few entertainers about whom one could say, So-and-so is simply the best. For nearly four decades, Bobby Short reigned at the Cafe Carlyle on New York's Upper East Side as America's quintessential male cabaret singer-pianist. The best at what he did, Mr. Short, who died yesterday, elevated the humble role of the piano-bar entertainer to an art.

To the extent that it flourishes in the music of Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, Eric Comstock and Billy Stritch, to name four talented younger practitioners, that tradition owes an incalculable debt to Bobby Short.

Twice a year, this eternally boyish bon vivant bounced into the Cafe Carlyle to play the indefatigably merry host of a Manhattan party that lasted for only a little more than an hour, but left you feeling refreshed and aglow. He evoked the joyful hi-de-ho of Cab Calloway, refined for the salon. Giving himself to performance with the enthusiasm of an excitable child, he would often leap from his piano bench and throw out his arms as if to embrace the room, all the while maintaining perfect enunciation. At this elegant bash, guests from downtown, uptown, out of town and out of the country partied side by side under the spell of his unflappable bonhomie.

To dismiss Mr. Short, as some did, as a plaything of the rich and the chic is to overlook his contribution to jazz and to New York cultural life. He was one of the last exponents of an ebullient dusk-till-dawn nightclub culture that flourished in Manhattan until it was done in by television, rock 'n' roll and its own inflationary pressures.

At the keyboard, Mr. Short refined his own personal brand of stride piano. Vigorous and sophisticated but devoid of fuss and frills, it was as distinctive as his voice, to which it was inextricably wedded. Over the years, his sound evolved from that of a caroling choirboy into a huskier baritone whose timbre varied from fogbound to clear, depending on the night and sometimes on the moment. As his voice acquired deeper shades and rougher textures, he made adroit, expressive use of each new facet.

Championing the work of African-American songwriters like Duke Ellington, Calloway, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, he placed their music on the same pedestal as standards by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Each performance suggested a continuing dialogue between uptown and downtown that demonstrated the depth of communication between Harlem and Broadway. His performances and recordings played a crucial role in leveling the racial playing field of American pop and helping bring a shamefully obscured history to light.

Because he entertained predominantly white audiences in upscale spaces like the Cafe Carlyle, Mr. Short could be mistakenly written off as a snob. Contributing to that impression was the air of la-di-dah insouciance he shared with other performers, like his friend Mabel Mercer, the great cabaret singer. A sense of style, however, is not to be confused with superficiality. Like Ms. Mercer, Mr. Short could plumb the depths of a song when the occasion demanded.

That style was an expression of Mr. Short's personal philosophy. Because his career was a fantastic feat of self-invention, it is little wonder that the predominant spirit he conveyed was a childlike awe and pleasure at living the high life. As the years piled up and he suffered from debilitating ailments that made walking increasingly difficult in his final years, he concealed his discomfort. Each performance became an act of self-transformation in which he threw off his troubles. Every time he sang Razaf and J. C. Johnson's racy announcement, "Guess Who's in Town," he conveyed the exuberance of someone who had just breezed into the room to give the party a lift.

For all his elegance, Mr. Short could never be called effete, and his performances burst with a playful, robust sensuality. Lil Green's bumping and grinding hymn to uninhibited lovemaking, "Romance in the Dark," became a long-running showstopper that Mr. Short milked for every ounce of jolly lubricity.

Taken together, the songs that formed the backbone of his enormous repertory became variations of that upbeat philosophy. At the very heart of it stood "Just One of Those Things," Cole Porter's regret-free, laughing-it-off epitaph to a love affair that passes like a streak of lightning: "It was great fun, but it was just one of those things." If there are regrets, they are minor compared with the sheer thrill of being alive and of having the chance to begin again.

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