Entertainment » Music

Wake-up Call: Talking with Jazz & Cabaret Star Ann Hampton Callaway

by John Amodeo
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Mar 27, 2019

It was 2 PM when I had called jazz and cabaret vocalist and Tony-Award nominee Ann Hampton Callaway, but it was only just as she picked up that I realized it was before 11 AM her time. I proclaimed sheepishly, "I'm so sorry, Ann, I've called before diva o'clock!" Speaking from her sun-filled home in Tucson, AZ, where she moved from New York a little over a year ago, Callaway chortled, "You know my clock so well!"

Though that appeared to be an inauspicious start (Ann leans eastward in her spirituality) and there were times Callaway admitted her memory was spotty before her morning caffeine kicked in, we still managed to have our usually animated discussion about singers, songwriters and Callaway's latest recording (her 16th!) "Jazz Goes to the Movies," released last Fall, which features songs from the '30s and '40s written for film or having some connection to film.

Callaway held a pre-release premier of the show of the same title at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in New York last August and has been touring the show nationally with breathtaking frequency since then. The 2019 tour alone will have brought the show to Delray Beach, FL, Brooklyn, Palm Springs, Carmel, Three Oaks, MI and Vail, CO. Fortunately for Bostonians, Callaway will bring "Jazz Goes to the Movies" to Scullers Jazz Club on Friday, 29 March.


A natural wonder

Callaway is one of our country's finest interpreters and champions of the Great American Songbook. She tours the country with more than a half dozen different shows at a time, such as "The Streisand Songbook," "The Linda Ronstadt Songbook," "Divalicious" with friend and songwriter Amanda McBroom ("The Rose"), "Sibling Revelry" with Tony Award-nominee sister Liz Callaway ("Baby," "Miss Saigon," "Cats"), and "Broadway with the Callaways," also with sister Liz. She has earned numerous accolades and awards along the way.

Stephen Holden of the New York Times cheered, "Ann Hampton Callaway...has a voice so rich, flexible and extravagantly gorgeous that it hardly matters what use she puts it to." David Friscic of the DC Metro said of her 2014 Kennedy Center appearance, "She displayed her vocal prowess from pristine clarity to scat singing to deeper, evocative and smoky tones. Callaway's voice is a natural wonder of the world and her voice should be patented as a musical instrument itself." He continued, "Callaway has an obvious inherent understanding and desire to foster an appreciation of the Great American Songbook."

Callaway has already done a show called "Jazz Meets Broadway," so it was a natural progression to explore how jazz was used in film, or to view old film chestnuts through a refreshing jazz lens. "Unlike theater, where songs are more often written to advance the story, many of the songs written for film are written more for mood," Callaway explains. "They aren't as dramatically written as theater songs." Callaway then recounts the set-up for the song "The Way You Look Tonight" (Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern) from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film "Swingtime," where Fred waxes poetic over Ginger's irresistible beauty. "What is precious about this is the irony of the moment," snickers Callaway. "Fred is so deeply in love with Ginger that he sings the song to her despite the fact that she is washing her hair in the scene and has a headful of suds. But you wouldn't ever sing that song to her at the moment, which adds a level of wit and humor to the song that's otherwise not written into it."


Leaning romantic

Another Jerome Kern song, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II is "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," sung by Irene Dunne in the film "High, Wide, and Handsome." According to Callaway, Hammerstein wrote this about a moment in time when you are with someone and you're on porch and dreaming together. "When I sing this, I sometimes imagine that situation, or that I'm not with someone I used to be with and dreaming of being with them. The lyrics create such an intimate moment and a dream that someone is sharing. We all long for building a life with someone," ponders Callaway. "It's not just about sex, but about the life you dream about with someone, and that you will always be with that person."

A classic that Callaway updates with a peppy jazz stride is the 1931 song "As Time Goes By," made famous when Sam (Dooley Wilson) sang part of it to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in the 1942 film "Casablanca." The song is sung in the midst of a very challenging situation, where the world is at war, and uncertainty is encountered at every turn. "He is bringing something reassuring to her character," says Callaway,
"that some things never change, which was a very important message at that moment."

If you are sensing that the program is leaning decidedly toward the romantic, you'd be correct. For example, "The Nearness of You" (Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington) is a purely romantic song. Callaway continues, "The song is about the experience of how essential someone becomes that you don't need romance. Just being near that person is enough." Callaway then starts to sing, "I need no soft lights to enchant me / if you'll only grant me / the right / to hold you ever so tight." She then resolves, "When you are in love, that's how you feel."


Drawn to swing

But just because all of the songs in her show are love songs, it doesn't mean that the mood of the evening is exclusively romantic. "I have my own stylistic sensibility and it covers a range from bluesy to gentle and tender, to bossa nova, to mischief and playfulness and excitement of swing, to a bebop jazz waltz. 'Next Time the Dream's on Me' has that kind of feeling," notes Callaway. There is bound to be some foot-tapping, finger-snapping jazz, especially with Callaway's 3-4 octave range, her scat improvisation skills (which she honed at the age of two singing along to her parents' Ella Fitzgerald records) and her ability to swing, which garnered her a Tony Award nomination for her rousing turn in the Broadway musical "Swing." "I'm drawn to swing, and Ella influenced me to express myself that way," admits Callaway. "I'm more interested in expressing the depth of emotions, which might include joy, like 'From This Moment On,' which is euphoria, which is how I felt when I met [my wife] Kari."

Helping Callaway hit all those styles will be the same combo she has most often worked with when she comes to Boston: Tim Ray on piano, Yoron Israel on drums, and Dave Zinno on bass. "I love when I am with them," gushes Callaway. "They are such awesome musicians."


Getting to know her audience

Fans of Callaway will be glad to know her show will include her signature "on-the-spot song creation" using words shouted out by the audience. "When I have an audience that is really playful and mischievous, I have the most fun with it. Sometimes people are more imaginative and make fun of their home town," chuckles Callaway. "I am always delighted at that moment at all the concerts, because it is in that moment, I really get to know the audience."

Always one to acknowledge those who came before her and those who walk with her through the musical world, Callaway takes a moment to honor the late jazz singer Wesla Whitfield, who passed away last year. "Wesla gave me a sense of fellowship, because we shared jazz sensibility. I'm a more robust jazz artist in the sense of scatting, using colors with more abandon," Callaway suggests. "But Wesla's attention to the lyrics was of utmost importance. She knew you don't have to sizzle people with choreography. You can just sit quiet in a chair and marvel people. She was the ultimate teacher in 'less is more.' Bringing your life experience to a song — that is enough." In her late 20s, Whitfield was randomly struck by a bullet while walking home. The bullet hit her spine, rendering her paralyzed from the waist down. "Wesla was a constant reminder of whatever problems you have, you can still get on stage and sing and have a career," Callaway reflects. "If you keep a sense of perspective in life, nothing can stop you from doing what honors your passion. Life continues to offer us challenges and Wesla reminds us we can get through it all."

Ann Hampton Callaway performs "Jazz Goes to the Movies" on Friday, 3/29, 8 PM at Scullers Jazz Club, Doubletree Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Filed Road, Boston, MA 02134. Tickets: $35. For tickets call 617.562.4111 or visit www.scullersjazz.com

Ms. Callaway will also appear in New York City on March 25 and March 30 (with her sister Liz). For upcoming dates on her current tour, visit her website.


Watch Ann Hampton Callaway sing "Someone to Watch Over Me.":


John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.


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