Keely Smith, Queen of Vegas, swings into Tribecas Highlights In Jazz series Thursday, October 6
Still a thrill after all these shows
By Rick Marx
Jack Kleinsingers enthusiasm is contagious, and hes particularly jazzed right now about the vocalist whos 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. Shes really a pro Im crazy about her. She does not consider herself a jazz singer, but shes maybe changed her opinion. Shes not a diva. Shes fun to be around.
Now in her 70s, Smith began her career in the 1950s as the female singer in Louis Primas 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.
Theres a generation of singers that may or may not be considered jazz singers, says Kleinsinger. Kay Starr was one. Peggy Lee
its 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 dont get lost in category. Keely swings her ass off, she works very well with the band, shes got a sultry, bluesy type of soundto me its jazz. But frankly, Im not going to worry about it.
Listening to Keely Smiths 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, shell 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. Im 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 hes 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, Heres a guy whos never been here before, and weve tried to get him for a long time.
He admits hes never made a living through the series, but working with his favorite musicians is compensation enough. Ive 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. Theres always one. And sometime its people who are in the audience. Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Earl Hines they show up at their peril. To me its gratifying people in the community want to attend the concert. After more than 280 shows, its still a thrill for me.