Volume 18 • Issue 19 | Sep. 30 - Oct 06, 2005

Keely Smith opens the 33rd Season of “Highlights In Jazz”
Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Thursday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m.
199 Chambers Street (between Greenwich and West Street).
Tickets from $27.50.
(212.220.1460; tribecapac.org)

Keely Smith, “Queen of Vegas,” swings into Tribeca’s “Highlights In Jazz” series Thursday, October 6

Still a thrill after all these shows

By Rick Marx

Jack Kleinsinger’s enthusiasm is contagious, and he’s particularly jazzed right now about the vocalist who’s opening his “Highlights in Jazz” series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, now in its 33rd year. “Keely Smith is a delight!” says Kleinsinger of the woman who was initially propelled to fame as a singer with the Louis Prima band. “She’s really a pro — I’m crazy about her. She does not consider herself a jazz singer, but she’s maybe changed her opinion. She’s not a diva. She’s fun to be around.”

Now in her 70’s, Smith began her career in the 1950s as the female singer in Louis Prima’s band. Later, she and Prima became a top-shelf Las Vegas lounge act, considered “the king and queen of Las Vegas,” and a darling of the Rat Packers.

“There’s a generation of singers that may or may not be considered jazz singers,” says Kleinsinger. “Kay Starr was one. Peggy Lee… it’s a tough call. Is Rosie Clooney a jazz singer? Tony Bennett? Frank Sinatra? I know that people who like jazz happen to like them very much, if you don’t get lost in category. Keely swings her ass off, she works very well with the band, she’s got a sultry, bluesy type of sound—to me it’s jazz. But frankly, I’m not going to worry about it.”

Listening to Keely Smith’s new CD, “Vegas, ’58,” you can hear the jazz side in her inflection, intonation, and phrasing, and the Vegas side in her pace, patter and attitude.

For her performance in New York, she’ll be singing with an eight-piece band featuring top New York City performers, among them Chip Jackson, Kenny Asher, Jerry Vivino, Ben Williams and Earl Gardner. The band will take the first set, and then Keely Smith will step up, joined by her musical director, Dennis Michael, who writes her arrangements and plays piano. “I’m taking advantage of the band for the first half,” says Kleinsinger. “Then she can sing as long as she wants.”

Kleinsinger, who started the Highlights series when he was 37, is the man who has kept the program alive and well for all these years. It takes place once a month and includes traditional jazz greats and special guests.

He says he’s been called “Ed Sullivan with adrenaline,” and his ability to persuade musicians in the crowd to join in is legendary. A critic wrote, “If Jesus Christ came to one of the ‘Highlights in Jazz’ concerts, Kleinsinger would say, “Here’s a guy who’s never been here before, and we’ve tried to get him for a long time.”

He admits he’s never made a living through the series, but working with his favorite musicians is compensation enough. “I’ve been the producer of the series from the start,” says Kleinsinger. “It was a labor of love that started in 1973, when I was an assistant attorney general in the state of New York.” (He now calls himself an impresario and jazz fan.)

In the past, “surprise guests” have included jazz legends Eubie Blake, Earl Hines, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz.

“Half the time, the surprise guests are surprises to me, too,” says Kleinsinger. “There’s always one. And sometime it’s people who are in the audience. Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Earl Hines — they show up at their peril. To me it’s gratifying people in the community want to attend the concert. After more than 280 shows, it’s still a thrill for me.”


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