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Interpreting an Icon

Writer and longstanding New York Times contributor James Gavin has been in the trenches of popular music for more than 30 years, and has written books such as Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee. We sat down with the acclaimed scribe to chat about his knowledge of New York’s cultural meccas, his travel routines and his upcoming book on the legendary George Michael.

At what age did you feel compelled to chase the stars?

At the age of five. In my family apartment in Yonkers, New York, I heard my mother’s old 45 of Patti Page singing her number-one hit of 1950, “The Tennessee Waltz.” It got to me. From then on, singers on records became like friends. Gradually I found my way to jazz singers: Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Peggy Lee and many others.

Is there a common thread running through the stars you’ve profiled?

I’m drawn to stories about people who took risks in life to chase the things they loved. People who struggled, lived with pain, and transformed it into meaningful art.

What’s the most obscure fact you unearthed from working on all of your books?

From my first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, I got a kick out of learning that actress/singer Helen Morgan adopted her classic form of stagecraft – sitting on top of the piano – because she was usually too drunk to stand up. Cabaret singers copy it to this day.

The author’s first book describes the Manhattan nightclub scene from the late ’40s through the ’60s

What is it about New York that offers visitors something they cannot get anywhere else in the world?

It has the smartest, hippest people alive. It is a congested place where people and activity collide constantly, setting off sparks. It keeps me reaching constantly. I never feel I’ve made it here, so I have to keep striving.

Do you consider The Plaza to be an intrinsic part of New York’s music scene? Yes. It was there from the Depression to disco, and The Persian Room – The Plaza’s
glamorous supper club – was awash in stars: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore,
Diahann Carroll, Ethel Merman. In 1966, years before Cabaret, Liza Minnelli, age 20 and not yet a star, performed there. Kay Thompson, who had worked at MGM as vocal coach to Sinatra, Lena Horne and Judy Garland, played The Persian Room. Kay also lived at The Plaza, and made it even more famous with her series of books about Eloise, the fictitious little-girl resident who did mischievous things. Those books were illustrated by my friend Hilary Knight, who is 90 now and still active. Lena Dunham recently produced an HBO documentary about him. Lately The Rose Club has been presenting a beautiful young pop-jazz singer named Kat Gang.

Lady Gaga chose The Plaza to showcase some of her earliest jazz work. Why? Gaga is a New York native and appreciates the city’s history, and clearly she respects what The Plaza represents. Given her knowledge of The Great American Songbook, she knows the value of a classic. In 2010, she dropped by The Oak Room on a whim to sing four songs and ended up buying a penthouse down the street – the same street that Tony Bennett lives on. In 2015, they did a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in the Grand Ballroom. These days The Plaza still has music that is very worth checking out.

Jazz legend Miles Davis recorded two albums at The Plaza. How do you think his performance style stood apart from the rest?

The Plaza had and still has a very exclusive cachet, an air of high prestige. Duke Ellington fit right in there; he was suave, refined, a people-pleaser who had a way with words. Miles was anti-showbiz – at his coldest he performed with his back to his audience. You had to come to him.

Patti Farmer’s book, The Persian Room Presents… talks about how Liza Minnelli and Diahann Carroll’s early audiences at The Plaza helped shape their identities. How?

The Persian Room’s audience was New York’s crème de la crème. They’d seen the best. Their opinions mattered. Every Persian Room show got a lot of press. In the fifties, Manhattan had eight daily newspapers. Performers at The Persian Room had a high standard to live up to. 

Your next book is on George Michael. What connection does he have to your past subjects?

He was one of the last old-school showmen in commercial pop, not unlike Frank Sinatra. He needed no camouflage or distraction. His presence filled stadiums. Peggy Lee sang in more intimate venues, but both she and George made a connection with audiences.

James Gavin’s biography of musical legend Peggy Lee

The most life-changing trip of your career?

My first trip to Brazil in 2000 – Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – galvanized me. From the moment I arrived, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time there. I had been in love with Brazilian music for years, and the music is the door to everything there. I’ve been there 14 times. When I go I speak and think in Portuguese.

When you’re writing on the road, what do you make sure you carry with you? My favorite biography, Patricia Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe. Her writing helps me find my way. I’m also hooked on Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Fuel Eye De-Puffer.

What do you require in a hotel room to ensure that you’ll have a good, long writing stint?

In hotel rooms, I write in bed, propped up on a comfy pillow with my MacBook Pro on my lap. I play soft classical music or jazz, with the room heating turned up. It’s like a womb, safe and warm, because writing is hard work for me.

What does a performer’s choice of hotel say about their taste level?

A hotel with every conceivable amenity and one that is staffed by super-professionals is important. I’ve had those experiences myself and it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.

Describe The Plaza in four words.

Historical. Palatial. Aristocratic. Glamorous.


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