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Bobby Short
Bobby Short

Bobby Short: Saloons Have Been Good To Him

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 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 York Times . 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 songs.

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.

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