By Mike Zwerin
25 April 2003"The year was a depression year, and I was a child of 12
when I first went on the road," Bobby Short wrote in his book Black And
White Baby "- a little colored boy in a suit of white tails who played the
piano and sang popular songs." He was known as "the miniature Fats Waller."
At the age of 78, Short is still playing and singing popular songs.
Called "the nation's most celebrated cabaret performer," he describes himself
as a "saloon pianist and singer." He was checked into the Ritz Hotel in Paris
in transit from Villa Manhattan, his house in the southern French village of
Mougins, for the May 6th start of his 35th straight yearly run at New York's
Café Carlyle in the swank hotel Carlyle. Saloons have been good to him.
"Bobby Short has been synonymous for many years with
a particular image of Manhattan chic," Stephen Holden wrote in The New
. Short lives on
57th street and, although temporarily hampered by a need for a cane, he can
walk to the Carlyle on 76th and Madison. A long time cane-collector, he "never
thought I'd have to rely on one of them." Thirty-five years ago, the Carlyle
was "basically a neighborhood place," he said. "When the piano player left
unexpectedly and the owner asked his friend Ahmet Ertegun what to do, Ahmet
said, 'It's very simple. Hire Bobby Short.'" Record mogul Ertegun has produced
many of Short's albums, three of which were nominated for Grammies. The
Café Carlyle holds 110 customers, the cover charge is $60, Short leads a
nonet including three reeds and three brass and they perform two shows a night
five nights a week.
He was raised in Danville (named in 1824 by one Dan
Beckwith), Illinois, where "my family always lived on a pleasant street, in a
pleasant neighborhood where the houses had front yards and back yards with
flower beds and vegetable gardens. If you were a smart enough kid in Danville,
they skipped you and by the time I was 11, I was a year a ahead in school."
Little Short had already been playing family parties and church
benefits and so on when "an agent from Chicago named Bookie promised me stardom
and wealth. In the black petit-bourgeoisie there was a notion that music was
just not a serious thing to get involved with. But I loved music and I was good
at it and I was determined and my family was supportive."
He dropped out
of school and went on the road. Then, after a year: "Show business stopped
being an adventure. Living in a hotel in Peoria is not very romantic when you
are 12." He returned to high school, joining the same class he'd once skipped
out of. Not long after graduation: "Bookie drove back to Danville and put me in
his long DeSalle convertible and we went to Chicago again. Bookie took very
good care of me. He was a nice person. I was lucky. I can't tell you how many
ways I've been lucky."
In 1968 there was a "hugely successful" concert with
Mabel Mercer at Town Hall. He appeared with the Boston and New York Pops and
with orchestras in Atlanta, Columbus, Sacramento and Seattle. Short performed
at the White House during the Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton
administrations. His nonet works many corporate parties. Short played himself
in For Love Or Money with Michael J. Fox, and in Woody Allen's Hannah
And Her Sisters. The New York Landmarks Conservancy gave him with their
"Living Landmarks" award. He's known for his enormous repertoire of popular
It's no longer "Singing In The Rain" time for Americans in
Paris. As we sipped Perrier in the spring sunshine in the garden of the Ritz, a
Stan Getz record in the background, I asked Short about the "cheese-eating
surrender-monkey" Franco-American political problems. "You never know how far
these things will go," he said, looking sad and puzzled. "I've been a
Francophile since I was a kid. I own property in France; I pay taxes in France.
I love to listen to Erik Satie and Django Reinhardt. There must be lots and
lots of people like me."
Short's expression remained sad considering
the present state of popular music: "Today's taste for pop songs is so awful. I
have no space for bad songs. I've got to be interested in the song or I can't
sing it." He called the Beatles "the last of civilization," making exceptions
for Burt Bachrach and Cy Coleman. At the same time, he admits that he's no
longer really trying to keep up: "Having worked in saloons for so long I no
longer go out and hear anybody else."
While spending as much of the
year as possible in France, he does not perform here. "I used to think it might
be fun to do a few nights in Paris once in a while," he said. "But then I
thought, this is such a lousy business. I don't want to have to deal with
someone who says they won't tune the piano - won't do this won't do that. I've
been through all of that in New York. It could just ruin Paris for me."
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the
International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the
European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz
editor of Culturekiosque.com.