archivist Michael Feinstein was a child prodigy who, at age 5, developed
an interest in the piano and in show music and having heard a song once
was able to play all manner of show tunes by ear. As a teenager, he
performed at weddings and parties and upon graduating Eastmore High
School in Columbus, Ohio, worked in local piano lounges. In 1976, Michael
and his family moved to Los Angeles.
I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in music. My
earliest memories consist of having family gatherings which were always
filled with music. As far back as I can recall there was always music
in my life. I played the piano and sang because it felt good to do so;
there were no professional aspirations involved. It was simply something
that brought me tremendous pleasurable moments.
While in Los Angeles, Feinstein had the good fortune to meet Oscar Levants
widow who, in turn, introduced him to Ira Gershwin. It was the legendary
Gershwin who hired Feinstein to organize his musical archives. Feinstein
worked for the famed lyricist for seven years (until Gershwins
death in 1983) and became his close confidante, in return for which
Gershwin, who is considered the writer of the worlds most loved
songs, introduced his archivist to many celebrities, some of whom helped
Feinstein launch his own career. As Feinstein himself put it, Meeting
Ira (Gershwin) opened me to undreamed-of possibilities.
The year was 1986 when Feinsteins musical career
was launched by Liza Minnelli. She asked Feinstein to join her at one
of her New York City concerts. After his debut, Feinstein went on to
perform on Broadway in a one-man show, Isnt It Romantic: Michael
Feinstein in Concert.
Feinsteins talents may well have been stirred
up by his family genes. My dad, Edward, was a singer and a sales
executive with the Sara Lee Corporation [no, he had nothing to do with
that catchy jingle] and my mom, Maizie, was, and still is, a semi-professional
tap dancer. She loves dancing and takes classes three days a week, which
keeps her in fantastic physical shape.
Feinstein, who finds joy and meaning in every song
he sings, says that some of his early influences were Fred Astaire,
Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Fats Waller, whose recordings as a
pianist and singer are so filled with inspiration and joy. I can never
get enough of him, he says reflectively.
Feinstein recently recorded his 20th album, Michael
Feinstein With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The CD was recorded
at Tel Avivs Mann Auditorium and was the joint brainchild of Feinstein
and his friend, conductor Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestras
Music Director for Life.
I wanted to join forces with this wonderful
orchestra. I loved the time I spent in Israel and hope to go back to
help support the people who need us there. I went to Israel because
I wanted to be there and it was so moving because the people I met were
so grateful for anyone who stepped foot on their soil given the intense
political situation. They kept telling me, Were so glad
you came. Thank you. Their overwhelming appreciation sometimes
made me feel uncomfortable because, in truth, it was I who should have
been thanking them for their unbelievable display of hospitality and
their selfless, daily acts of courage. Although the concert was in Tel
Aviv, I traveled throughout the country. I was left with a great sense
of yearning for better things for all the people I had the pleasure
of meeting and with whom I felt a close sense of friendship and love.
In an attempt to bridge the cultural and political
gap, The Israel Philharmonic has been involved in a solidarity
program (Seeds of Peace) to bring together Arab and Israeli children
to make music, says Feinstein. I had recorded an album with
the Israel Philharmonic and that is when I became aware of the ensemble
as an adjunct to the orchestra. The music was intricate and in order
for them to have played so extraordinarily well, they must have rehearsed
for a very long time previous to their New York appearance.
Last year, Feinstein performed at the prestigious
Carnegie Hall in New York City with the 70-piece Israel Philharmonic
Orchestra. Included as part of the performance were the members of the
Israeli-Arab ensemble consisting of members of the Israel Philharmonic
and members of the Arab music community who, together, started the project
for the purpose of unity since both Israeli and Arabic music are similar
in many ways. I was privileged to perform with this extraordinary
ensemble of artists who were acting as ambassadors of peace, says
the boyish-looking Feinstein. The people from the ensemble range
from their 20s to their 60s, and they come from diverse places within
Israel, Jordan and Palestine. It was a wonderful evening devoted solely
to music with no talk of politics. The audience received the ensemble
with unbridled adulation because the music was just marvelous. The experience
left me wishing that this feeling of cooperation and friendship could
be the way the world would react all the time.
At times, Feinstein has described himself as the
kid from Columbus, Ohio. Well, its safe to say that the
kid has come a long way, baby! He currently has 20 CDs and performs
more than 200 concerts a year. Two years ago, he opened his nightclub,
Feinsteins at the Regency, which is located in the elegant and
trendy Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.
I never dreamed that one day I would be opening
a nightclub in Manhattan. To show how things have changed, he adds,
The name Feinsteins is a name that would never have adorned
the sign of an older establishment because Jewish ethnic was out. Now,
Feinsteins unique ability of instinctively knowing
what to do and when may be due in large measure to his liberal upbringing.
My family was always supportive of whatever I chose to do. As
a teenager, I didnt realize how extraordinary my parents were,
but I now realize that they were extremely liberal in allowing me to
pursue my own path. The best example is my wish not to be bar mitzvahed
at the traditional age of 13. My family belonged to a conservative temple
and were not particularly observant as regards religious dogma. They
wanted all three of their children to have a Jewish education, which
included knowledge of our heritage and Judaic traditions. However, they
allowed us to observe our religion as we saw fit. They raised us in
the manner they believed to be right, and then gave us the freedom to
choose. Reflecting on past events, I guess I was the rebel, particularly
when it came to religious issues.
Although all of my friends were being bar mitzvahed,
to me it seemed more a show for the parents than for the initiate. None
of my friends understood the Hebrew words they were speaking, although
they may well have understood the religious significance. I really didnt
see the need for my parents to go to either the trouble or the expense.
They impressed upon me that being bar mitzvahed was an important Jewish
tradition and I remember asking if it mattered when a person was bar
mitzvahed. In other words, could I do it later on? When they said, Yes,
I said that if I changed my mind, I would let them know. My parents
were satisfied with the status quo, but our friends and relatives were
outraged. My parents said they understood their feelings but they would
not force me to do anything I did not wish to do. This frame of reference,
I think, was relatively rare for my generation, but its full significance
hit me much later on in life.
Feinstein is often referred to as Americas
Musical Ambassador for his stellar tributes to the Gershwin brothers,
as well as other composers. His evocative vocal phrasing, his talent
and his casual stage persona have always earned him high praise from
the critics worldwide.
Although Feinstein has his fingers in many pies, Concord
Records is creating a new label for him, cleverly called Feinery.
Of his new venture, the talented one says: It will give me the
opportunity to release recordings that arent mainstream, but important
Today, at age 46, his style has matured, by
virtue of the life experiences that Ive had, he says. I
try and create music that is not a flash in the pan. A CD I made more
than 10 years ago, like Isnt It Romantic, still sounds good today
because its not contingent on passing fancies.
Having done all that, whats left? The question
digested, the reply was almost immediate. I just want to keep
growing and deepening my connection with music. In the past, Ive
done several of my concerts on Broadway, but I would like to do something
a little different; something with more staging, less of a concert and
more of a concept in a different setting. I definitely do intend to
do Broadway again and while I havent as yet decided when, one
thing is certain, it will happen. I feel it is important to keep writing
and creating more music at a time when we truly need it. Music is healing
and significant not only as an art but as a means of creating a transformation.
There are several things which are paramount in Feinsteins
life: family, music and now heritage. Like many, as I grow older,
I have more appreciation for my heritage and my ethnic background. Going
to Israel was for me just a wonderful experience.
His latest project is Only One Life: The Songs of
Jimmy Webb, exploring the songs of the great songwriter, best known
for Up, Up & Away, Didnt We and MacArthur
Park. After two decades interpreting the songs of Tin Pan Alley,
Broadway and Hollywood, Feinstein is focusing on a contemporary composer
for the first time. Jimmy Webb, one of the most popular and enduring
songwriters of the later 20th century, has countless Grammy Awards and
#1 hits to his credit. This collaborationwith its roots in traditional
standards but with a distinctively modern sensibilitymarks the
most contemporary recording of Michaels career.
Michael recently returned from the first leg of his
national tour with Jimmy. Only One Life is a song cycle of love, passion,
hope and regret that features some of Jimmys most recognized songs,
but also six premiere recordings. Jimmy is the link between classic
and contemporary songwriting, Michael says. He has the perfect
combination of music and lyrics, intelligence and wit. Jimmys
songs have been incredibly influential to his generation, and will be
standards for the next.