"New York Cabaret Music" is a phrase that suggests (inaccurately) an idiom unto itself, like West Coast Jazz or Third Stream Music. It also happens to be the title of a new six-LP set (LP 81817-1 or CD 81817-2), subtitled "The Erteguns' New York."
Ahmet Ertegun, who assembled this package of 1949-'83 reissues (most of which he or his brother Nesuhi produced originally), was the son of a Turkish ambassador to the U. S. Growing up in Washington in the early 1940s, he and Nesuhi became avid jazz fans, frequently visiting New York to catch up on the Big Apple jazz scene. They also integrated a segregated Washington by staging jam sessions at the Turkish embassy.
In 1947, Ahmet became co-founder of Atlantic Records. Nesuhi, after working in California for Les Koenig's Contemporary Records, joined Atlantic a few years later.
Originally jazz-oriented, Atlantic moved heavily into R&B in the 1950s, then into rock, and eventually became part of a huge conglomerate, WEA (Warner-Elektra Atlantic). While they forsook active producing as they worked their way up the corporate ladder, the Erteguns retained their interest not only in jazz, but also in the indefinable music heard on this album.
Today, Ahmet Ertegun is chairman of Atlantic Records; Nesuhi is vice president of Warner Communications. Last week, visiting Los Angeles, Ahmet made a stab at the elusive definition of cabaret music.
"It's not pop music," he said. "It's not exactly jazz. It's the kind of music that appeals to people who like hearing the great songs, Cole Porter and so forth, done not by Crosby or Sinatra, but by somebody a little more special.
"It's a mood, a state of mind, rather than a specific sound. It's a potpourri for people who like night life. The era it represents is behind us, but everyone who knows about it understands what it is. Of course, people who don't know will never learn what it is.
"I can remember leaving El Morocco at midnight, with a couple of hip friends, to go to a club in Harlem, or some place in the Village where Pee Wee Russell might be playing, or perhaps one of the places on West 52nd Street or the East Side. The people who didn't want to come along would wonder what we could possibly be doing, going someplace else at midnight.
"I really miss those places like the Ruban Bleu and the Blue Angel. We just don't have clubs like that any more."
In his introduction to the album, Ertegun observes: "New York to me was glamour, elegance and modernity . . . sophisticated, romantic experience, urbane city life." In other words, beyond the Ellingtons and Armstrongs who were his original idols, he embraced the world of Porter, Noel Coward, Kurt Weill and the singers and pianists who plied their trade, mostly east of Fifth Avenue in the glitzy confines of the Embers and Tony's and the Ruban Bleu, but also uptown and downtown.
Cabaret music was anything performed by the soloists (and the occasional jazz group) heard in those rooms, mostly in the 1950s. Many of the keyboard artists were essentially cocktail pianists, albeit superior ones (Cy Walter, Ted Straeter, Jimmy Lyon, all now deceased). Some, like Hugh Shannon and Jimmy Daniels were, to coin a phrase, cocktail singers, pleasant and competent. Mae Barnes was a special favorite of Ahmet Ertegun, yet her monopoly of the first side (10 ebullient and sometimes over-boisterous songs) may find the listener sinking in a bog of nostalgia without enough redeeming musical merit.
Overheard casually during a cocktails-for-two rendezvous, these were the right sounds for the occasion. The album runs to almost 100 songs, some of which have had trouble weathering the decades. Mabel Mercer, with her residual English accent, her already deteriorating vocal power, trilling her r's and assuming a near-parlando style, becomes a little overbearing after 11 tunes, as does the shorter set by a long forgotten Viennese singer named Greta Keller.
More by chance than by design, some of the participants were jazz-inflected pianists (Barbara Carroll, Billy Taylor) or singers with a convincing jazz style, most notably the organist Joe Mooney and the inimitable pianist and self-mocking vocal stylist Bobby Short, whose pseudo-Bessie Smithisms on "Gimme a Pigfoot" are among the album's high points.
Like Short, Sylvia Syms and Chris Connor are both still active. On Syms' six tunes, she is well supported by Al Cohn and others; her "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor" exemplifies a Cole Porter sophistication that successfully blended West Side jazz with East Side politesse.