26 September 2007

Blossom Dearie

Comeback kid:
Blossom Dearie at the Skylight Room

If you close your eyes and listen only to that wisp of baby-doll voice and to her piano playing, muscular and supple as a medal-winning teenage gymnast, you will be inclined to think that time has stood still for Blossom Dearie. When I heard her last, she sounded much as she did on her earliest recordings, 50 years ago. Her diction was as crisp as ever, and her genius for phrasing was undiminished, the way she goosed the rhythm or lingered over a note, usually to make sure her audience appreciated a witty lyric. Of which she had an abundance.

But when you opened your eyes, you saw a small, rather frail, old woman. Though her keyboard technique was still commanding, her hands were those of a grandmother. The steps made by her tiny feet were tentative. You realized that her voice, never rangy, was narrower now, and she didn’t sustain many vocal notes, and sometimes she cheated the high ones. Some favorite songs with intricate lyrics, such as “Someone’s Been Sending Me Flowers” and “Bruce,” no longer appeared in her set, and I had to admit the possibility that she had trouble remembering the words. She was never much of a salesman or showman, and now her onstage banter was mostly limited to dutiful recitations of the authors of a number. Ageless she was, but the description isn’t applied to young women. Even for Blossom Dearie, time did not stand still. It moved. But forward — yes, and upward — and satisfyingly so.

When I found her, she was not in a glittering Parisian boîte or a swanky Manhattan supper club, or any of her former haunts. The Ballroom in New York, where her annual engagements were a legendary event when I was young, had been closed long ago. Now she was performing in the back room of a Thai seafood restaurant in the Theater District. Her old record labels had dropped her and, fatally, never released her old albums on compact disc; for several years she’d been producing her own recordings, on her own label, quirky little cassette tapes and CDs that she sold and autographed after her show. Yet from these unlikely materials she fashioned a remarkable comeback. It was small-scale and a little shy, much like the lady herself. She installed herself in “Danny’s Skylight Room,” as the Thai venue called itself, and she waited for people to come to her.

And we came. The Skylight Room was always packed. Critics came, gave her rave reviews, and the record companies took notice, releasing her old albums on CD. Though she remained loyal to Danny’s until that place, too, closed down, I gathered that the number and quality of her engagements elsewhere improved. Suddenly, she was the name on everyone’s lips.

I heard her several times there — I’ve honestly lost count — starting just as her comeback was shifting into gear. Her greatest successes arrived when I was too young and too far from New York to enjoy them; her Ballroom engagements coincided with my impoverished phase, when I never imagined I could afford to go to a nightclub: only when she began to play at Danny’s did I hear her live.

Like most people my age, I first heard her voice on Saturday morning television, the “Schoolhouse Rock” segments that used to squeeze between commercials and cartoons, giving ABC a little taste of Sesame Street-style prestige. Later, one of my college roommates, Melora Wolff, was a fan; she occasionally played Dearie’s albums. One way and another, Blossom Dearie’s voice had been knocking around the corners of my consciousness for a long time, but that night in Danny’s Skylight Room was the first time I’d really listened to her. Once I got past the initial delight — she hadn’t changed — I began to pay closer attention to what she’d been doing all along.

She’d had early success in supper clubs, including a long stint in France that explains the presence in her repertory of so many songs in French, or about the French. She always favored soubrette numbers, droll bits by the sadder-but-wiser girl who isn’t long in the spotlight, and these chimed nicely with her distinctly reticent performing persona. She’s got a sharp sense of humor, and her repertoire is often howlingly funny, but she played the songs straight. She didn’t milk the jokes, and if you didn’t get ’em, no sweat. You’d naturally expect her to follow up a comic novelty number with a story, and maybe a rimshot from her drummer. But that’s not Blossom’s style.

Most of the novelty songs weren’t Dearie’s own; wizards like Dave Frishberg, John Wallowitch, and Sheldon Harnick wrote them for her. Her own compositions are subtler, jazzier, with lyrics that are less twisty yet every bit as sly. This material made her seem a somewhat wistful cynic, often disappointed in love, and it made an amusing contrast with her girlish delivery. Yet she took “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and turned it into shimmering gossamer. She did the same with “Tea for Two,” unlikely as that may seem. By exploring the old standards, by playing them freshly and sweetly, she made new sense of them. They were (who knew?) catalogues of the simplest pleasures of love. And the façade of weary disappointment cracked a little.

After every performance, Blossom retired to a booth in the restaurant, where she signed autographs. I went to speak to her the first night, buying all of her self-produced titles, and later, after a gig, I’d always go up to her, if not for another autograph just to tell her how much I enjoyed her work. She was always polite, but never more. She was not comfortable with strangers, and she hadn’t developed the handy automatic-pilot catchphrases of a stage-door pro like Beverly Sills. Meet-and-greet is part of the business, and Dearie submitted to it dutifully. But real personal contact between her and the audience took place only during the performance — during the songs, not between them, not after them.

Because Blossom Dearie didn’t put on a show: she had a private conversation with her piano, and I just happened to eavesdrop on it.

I’m not sure where she is now. Attempts to track her down via the Internet haven’t yielded much. But as long as she plays, I’ll listen.