Bobby Short

A Life in Harmony With the Songs He Sang


 March 23, 2005

For those who never had the chance to see Bobby Short in person, he will probably be best remembered for his cameo performance in "Hannah and Her Sisters." Woody Allen's character drags his coke-snorting date to the Cafe Carlyle. And there is Bobby Short, the urbane antidote to nihilism, singing Cole Porter's "I'm in Love Again."


I was lucky enough to hear Bobby Short twice. The first time was a decade ago, and frankly, the evening was nearly a disaster. I hadn't made a reservation -- Mr. Short was at the Cafe Carlyle every night for months on end, after all, and I was taking my date to the late show at that. How crowded could it be? Crazy crowded.


The discreet application of cash to the maitre d's palm assured a table. We sidled into a dim banquette and, cocktails in hand, settled in for what I expected would be a low-key performance. Wrong again. Backed with bass and drums, Mr. Short launched into a song. His arms flew up from the keys and into the sort of triumphant gesture gymnasts make when they stick a landing. His voice was a raspy clarion, hoarse from a lifetime of belting it out. The abandon in his voice was also on his face: Mr. Short's sheer exuberance was as blinding as a stadium's worth of klieg lights.


Ever since then, I had wanted to hear Mr. Short again, and got the chance last November. My friend, saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, has led the little big band that backed Mr. Short for the last several years. He was as much a fan as a fellow musician: "My parents took me to hear Bobby when I was 13," Mr. Schoenberg says. He invited me to come up to New York to see Mr. Short from a different vantage point, by sitting in with the band. At 80 years old, Mr. Short was every bit as electrifying as he had been when I first saw him. Entering the packed room to an ovation, Mr. Short didn't coast for a second -- he sold every song. I remembered Mr. Short's grin from seeing him 10 years before; what I noticed this time, sitting in the band, was the way he put that same smile on the faces in the audience.


Another musician who heard Mr. Short at a tender age is funky rocker Lenny Kravitz. "I've known Bobby Short since I was five years old," he says. "He was the person who coaxed my mother into marrying my father." Mr. Kravitz admired Mr. Short's impeccable style -- "the classiest gentleman I ever met in my life." But above all, he loved the way Mr. Short put across a Gershwin or Porter tune. "Bobby Short will remain my favorite artist of all time."


By all accounts, Mr. Short was unfailingly gracious. He didn't retreat to a dressing room between shows, but lounged in the "gallery," a small lobby between the Carlyle's cafe and its bar. There, relaxing with friends, he would chat amiably with the patrons, whether they had come up to shake his hand or just to ask for directions to the hotel's obscure bathrooms.


Loren Schoenberg suspects that Mr. Short's graciousness grew out of the long obscurity he knew before his success at the Carlyle. "His fame came when he was well into his 40s," says Mr. Schoenberg. "Until then, he was scuffling for gigs -- just getting by." That long stretch seems to have inoculated Mr. Short from the disfiguring disease known as celebrity.


Mr. Short was born in 1924 and grew up in Danville, Ill., the penultimate of 10 children. One could say that it was ironic that Mr. Short -- a Midwestern kid -- became an iconic New Yorker. Ironic, too, that an African-American man would come to embody the sort of glittering, bygone world of high society that, in the 1930s, would hardly have welcomed him. But then again, it isn't really ironic at all. Mr. Short lived an American life that was in perfect harmony with the songs he sang, one in which any man, every man, can be an aristocrat if he just takes the trouble to gain some sophistication.


If there is an irony in Mr. Short's life, it is that he found fame in the late 1960s, when the music he championed was beyond decline. Now, some 35 years later, every fourth wizened rock star from the right has "discovered" the Great American Songbook. But the songs were never really lost, because musicians like Mr. Short kept them fresh and alive in the intervening years.


There is a certain sort of jazz purist who dismissed Mr. Short as a "cabaret" artist. Perhaps it was because of the venue where he performed (and the carriage trade he attracted). "He was narrowly pegged into the cabaret world," says Mr. Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, "but he was a phenomenal musician." Take Mr. Short's fine piano work -- an elegant distillation of Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington (spiced with the occasional dash of Art Tatum).


Another big no-no with some jazz critics, Mr. Short treated the words as equal to the music. He was at his best singing Cole Porter (another Midwesterner turned metropolitan), whose often-complicated lyrics demand precision. When I played with Mr. Short late last year, the highlight of the evening was his performance of Porter's "Can Can." Mr. Short sang every last one of the song's umpteen choruses, a torrent of sly wit. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the audience or Mr. Short.


Cabaret, jazz, popular song -- the categories don't really matter. Mr. Short was a saloon singer, and that's honorific enough. He was midwife to countless new romances -- and at the other end of the dramatic arc, a better balm for lost love than any twelve-o'clocktail. It's a definition of a life well spent.


In "Hannah and Her Sisters," Woody Allen's punk-addled date just doesn't get it. On the sidewalk outside the Carlyle, Mr. Allen berates her: "You don't deserve Cole Porter." One suspects that Bobby Short would have disagreed. With his elegant egalitarianism, Mr. Short treated everyone as though they deserved Cole Porter. And that was the most gracious gesture of all.