Monheit, Jane (Contemporary Musicians)
Jane Monheit became the retro darling of the jazz world after the release of her debut album, Never Never Land, in May of 2000. At the time only 22 years of age, Monheit possessed a voice and lyrical presence well beyond her years, as well as a sultry physical appeal reminiscent of singers from the 1930s and 1940s. "Her high, sweet voice is pure (with hints of a rich, budding lower register)," wrote Stephen Holden for the New York Times. "Her sense of swing is steady; her taste in popular standards is impeccable; her interpretations of songs like 'Blame It on My Youth,' 'Young and Foolish,' and 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill' are imbued with a precocious wisdom." Monheit, whose career sprung from winning the runner-up prize at the 1998 Thelonius Monk Vocal Competition, is poised, say many, to become a pop star as well as a favorite among standard jazz enthusiasts.
In addition to her Never Never Land album reaching the Billboard Top Ten soon after its release, Monheit made several high-profile appearances, including a week in July of 2000 at the Village Vanguard, regarded as a place of pilgrimage for jazz where singers are rarely granted the stage, as well as two shows later that year for the Lincoln Center's Great American Songbook series. After this, she played the New Year's Eve show at the Blue Note in Manhattan and gave a recital at the end of January of 2001 at Steinway Hall with pianist Tommy Flanagan, one of his first engagements of this kind since working with Ella Fitzgerald decades ago.
Fittingly, Fitzgerald herself served as Monheit's primary role model. "My main influence was Ella," Monheit said, as quoted at the jazzsingers.com website. "No one else even comes close." She also gained insight from other legendary jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, as well as contemporary vocalists and vocal groups such as Joni Mitchell, Take Six, and New York Voices.
Born on November 3, 1977, Monheit took to singing the standards made popular decades before her birth quite early. Growing up in the suburban town of Oakdale on Long Island, New York, she was a mere two years of age when she began performing tunes such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Honeysuckle Rose" in a nearly perfect pitch about the family home. However, Monheit's innate gifts probably came as no surprise, given the fact that other members of her family likewise displayed a talent for music. Both Monheit's grandmother and aunt worked as professional singers, while just about everyone else played various instruments or sang for pleasure, including her father, David Monheit, who owns a machine-tool business but plays bluegrass guitar and banjo in his spare time. Thus, music always played a prominent role in Monheit's day-to-day life.
Monheit received her earliest musical education at her grandparents' home in nearby Bellmore, Long Island. Part home, part studio, and filled with various musical instruments (including an amplifier and guitars for Monheit's younger brother, David), as well as hundreds of CDs and albums, mostly from the jazz swing era, Monheit began learning songs and making tapes under the tutelage of her grandfather, Ernest Newton, a retired science teacher, at the tender age of 28 months. "I heard most of the jazz I ever heard in my life, before college, in this house," she informed New York Times writer David Hajdu. However, Monheit added, her grandfather's tastes were more traditional than adventurous. "I didn't know what Coltrane sounded like until I went to college."
Aside from the support of her family, Monheit also had the good fortune of attending a school that placed great importance on education in the arts. Her public school district, Connetquot, offered an extensive program in jazz, beginning in the elementary grades. "The district had the greatest music teachers ever," she told Robbie Woliver of the New York Times. "I never studied with anyone outside of school." Her primary teacher, John Leddy, instructed Monheit from the fourth grade through high school.
Inspired by legendary vocalists such as Fitzgerald, Vaughan, and McRae, Monheit, who also played clarinet, pursued her studies in music with zeal. Then, at Connetquot High School, her abilities blossomed, and she became the school's theater star. "I played the lead in all the plays, and I loved it," she recalled to Hajdu. "Musical theater mean, don't even get me started. The first time I saw 'The Music Man' on Broadway, I could hardly stop crying through the whole thing, because I was just so overjoyed to be sitting in the theater watching a wonderful production of that show. Rebecca Luker has been one of my idols forever." As a teen, Monheit also performed at weddings and picked up club dates wherever she could on the South Shore of Long Island.
After graduating from high school, Monheit left Long Island for New York City to study voice at the Manhattan School of Music, where she enrolled specifically to take instruction from Peter Eldridge, a founding member of the New York Voices. Upon her arrival, she gravitated toward the cabaret scene and performed show tunes at piano bars in Greenwich Village. Eventually, her college boyfriend and future husband, jazz drummer Rick Montalbano, steered her away from cabaret toward a concentration on jazz. She soon joined the group that Montalbano played in, a swing quintet featuring Joel Frahm on saxophone and David Berkman on piano. The group toured several New England colleges and performed regularly at small Manhattan clubs.
Monheit's big break occurred when Eldridge suggested she enter the Thelonius Monk Institute Vocal Competition, to be held on September 25, 1998, in Washington, D.C. The Thelonius Monk competition is a prestigious annual contest that previously introduced such names as saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ryan Kisor, yet Monheit knew nothing of the event's importance. "I had no idea what I was getting into when I entered the Monk competition," she admitted to Eliot Tiegel in Down Beat. "I didn't know it could start a career, and now every day there seems to be new, big things happening. It's like a continuous chain of surprises."
During the semi-finals, however, when she saw Wayne Shorter enter the room, Monheit immediately realized the significance of the Monk competition. Joining Shorter for the finals the following evening were other distinguished musicians, as well as record executives, agents, managers, the music press, concert promoters, and jazz fans all hoping to discover new talent. Monheit, feeling relaxed and filled with a sense of purpose, gave a stunning performance singing the number "Detour Ahead" before an esteemed panel of judges that included Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nneena Freelon, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, and the late Joe Williams. She earned the first runner-up prize and a $10,000 scholarship. The top honor in the vocal category went to 64-year-old Teri Thornton, the legendary singer and pianist who announced during her performance that she had been diagnosed with cancer. (Thornton succumbed to the disease 20 months later.)
Although she took second prize, Monheit's voice nevertheless instantly caught the attention of several record executives, including Carl Griffin, president of N-Coded Music, who introduced himself to the young singer at the reception following the competition and offered her a contract upon completing college. "I heard the element of Ella that struck meery unusual for a girl 20 years old, especially a white girl," recalled Griffin, one of the few African American executives in a top position at a jazz label, to Hajdu. "I said 'O.K.he's in touch with the tradition, and she's young and beautiful. She's the best of both worlds. This is it!'"
Also at the reception, Monheit met Mary Ann Topper, a personal manager who helped shape the careers of Diana Krall, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, and Michael Petrucciani. Monheit graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in June of 1999 and immediately signed with the N-Coded label for two records, with an option to record three more. She also signed with Topper's agency, the Jazz Tree, on undisclosed terms. Shortly thereafter, plans got under way for her debut album.
Released in 2000, Never Never Land featured Monheit singing standards in the company of some of the world's premiere jazz playersenny Barron, Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, Bucky Pizzarelli, Hank Crawford, and David "Fathead" Newman. "It was incredible luck to get to work with that band," said Monheit, as quoted by Woliver, "a dream come true." For the album, Monheit chose a classic repertoire, including such sophisticated compositions as Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Dindi" and Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)," as well as the effective ballads "Detour Ahead" and "Never Let Me Go." Monheit's sophomore effort, Come Dream With Me, released in May of 2001, also concentrated on standard songs such as "Blame It on My Youth" and "Something to Live For." Here, Barron returned in his role as pianist alongside a group comprised of younger talent.
While her star continued to rise, Monheit, who lives in New York but returns to Long Island often to visit her family, is still shocked by her popularity. "I'm just this young girl from Long Island," she confessed to Woliver. "I'm the last person this should be happening to. I thought people would be saying, 'Hey, who's that little white girl?' But everyone's really embracing me."
Never Never Land, N-Coded, 2000.
Come Dream With Me, N-Coded, 2001.
Billboard, December 2, 2001.
Boston Globe, May 19, 2000; March 22, 2001.
Down Beat, September 2000; January 2001.
Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2000.
New York Times, June 18, 2000; September 20, 2000; November 23, 2000; December 31, 2000; January 16, 2001; March 16, 2001; March 23, 2001.
People, May 22, 2000.
Village Voice, July 25, 2000.
Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2000.
Washington Post, September 28, 1998.
"Jane Monheit," jazzsingers.com, http://www.jazzsingers.com/JaneMonheit (May 5, 2001).