Jazz vocalist and international cabaret star Spider Saloff agreed jazz artists would be wise to incorporate a more theatrical style into their performances.
“Early jazz performers were more theatrical,” said Saloff, who performs Feb. 24 at Illinois Wesleyan University. “Dizzy Gillespie was a monster musician and groundbreaking instrumentalist, but he also was a showman. He knew how to play an audience and how to charm them. As did Ella Fitzgerald … and Sarah Vaughan. They had a connection, they were LIVE performers.”
Saloff connected live music to theater at a young age. She was roughly 10 when her parents took her to "1776" the musical in their hometown of Philadelphia.
“I was floored. That did it for me,” recalled Saloff.
Second-row seats to her first full-blown musical, one she still characterized as a historically brilliant show, made quite an impression.
“Who would have ever thought to do that?” asked Saloff of the Tony-winning show that debuted on Broadway in 1969. “It was like nothing else that had ever been produced, and I had never seen a Broadway show up close like that. I think I got spit on by William Daniels,” Saloff laughed, referring to the actor who played John Adams in the show.
Saloff recalls the musical being a vocational clarion call of sorts, but hesitated at the memory as she knew not to verbalize the emotion, fearing family rebuke.
“They would think you would fail, they would think it’s ridiculous that you were trying it,” said Saloff. “It wasn’t that they were being mean. It’s just that people who are unaccustomed to something think you’re going to fail."
So she quietly began performing in school and other venues. At age 14 she informed her parents they could come see her perform at a school variety show.
“And they were like, ‘Doing what?’ And I said, ‘Oh I’m singing.’ I had rehearsed carefully at my girlfriend’s house because I knew they (her parents) would tell me I couldn’t. They came to the show and were floored, they were like, ‘Where did this kid come from?’”
By age 16, she was in a professional theater company.
“But if they had been part of the process I think it would have been disastrous,” said Saloff.
In this case, ignoring her parent’s instincts and following her own was wise. Saloff has performed musical theater, jazz cabaret and acting her entire adult life, with that early exposure to "1776" never far from her mind. Her cabaret shows often involve original historical pieces, including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Ella Fitzgerald.
“What I do is not typical of cabaret,” said Saloff. “First I’m going to be with great jazz musicians, as I’m really a jazz artist that happens to love the Great American Songbook, so I sort of meld the two.”
She loves the storytelling aspect, and the history.
“That came from the radio series that was internationally syndicated called ‘Words & Music,’” said Saloff of the show that aired on NPR. She was one of its three creators and co-hosts.
“We did 56 episodes and it was on the air for two and a half years. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life. The subjects would be American composers and lyricists, and we would tell the story of their lives, why they wrote certain songs, and what they were doing at that time.”
Though she agreed with the historian characterization, but thought the show was more about understanding what she called “the human condition.”
“It’s why the music has lasted so long, it’s so relatable,” said Saloff. “It has so much staying power because it has so much humanity in it.”
In a way, it’s like the connection Dizzy, Ella, and Sarah Vaughan would make with their audience as the lead in their ensemble.
“It wasn’t just song after song with no introduction,” said Saloff. “They would talk to the audience and address things. Sarah Vaughan would talk about what her tour was like, for example, that she had just woken up before she went on stage.”
It’s the beauty of live performance, and why Saloff said all parents should introduce their children to live performance, as she was at age 10.
“Because there is too much you see on a video screen that will never replace seeing something live,” said Saloff.
Spider Saloff sings The Great American Songbook at a gala benefit for Autism McLean on Saturday, Feb. 24, in the main lounge of the Memorial Center at Illinois Wesleyan University. The silent auction begins at 6 p.m. Music starts at 7:30 p.m.
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