The illustrious and uber-talented Michael Feinstein is a dynamic force in the world of music. He is a five-time Grammy Award nominee and has numerous Emmy nominees for his awe-inspiring PBS-television specials. His work as an archivist has made him one of the most preeminent forces in music today. He is a distinguished and renowned performer, composer, and an arranger of his own original music.
Feinstein began his prolific career in his 20’s working alongside the legendary Ira Gershwin. Gershwin’s influence, along with Feinstein’s enormous talent, led the way to a remarkable career. He holds three honorary doctorates and is the noted author of “The Gershwins & Me.” Feinstein founded the Great American Songbook Foundation in 2007. It is dedicated to celebrating and preserving its music through educational programs, master classes, and the annual High School Songbook Academy. Feinstein devotes his time, his energy and his talent to numerous worthwhile causes and he serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board.
Q. It’s a pleasure to see you again. As you know, I’m a huge fan. You were enchanting in Atlanta. What a performance ,and your storytelling about former Jewish performers was enlightening and entertaining. We were all mesmerized. The crowd stayed through several standing ovations.
MF: I appreciate that; I really do. Anytime I can perform the music I love is wonderful. Being Jewish is a part of who I am, and life is about building bridges. We all have certain backgrounds and if one looks beneath the surface, we find the common bond of humanity that is necessary for happiness and survival. I’m deeply affected by Judaism. It is a religion that, at its core, teaches about helping others. If one is given the gift of health and any kind of prosperity, it is incumbent about anyone with the ability to give back in whatever way they can. I am mindful of that. It is a natural thing for me.
When I left my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, at the age of 20, my grandmother had just gone into assisted living at the Heritage House, a Jewish residence for older folks in Columbus. When I moved to California, I started playing at the Jewish home for the aged twice a week. I did that just because I hoped someone would come and play for my grandmother in Ohio. I developed a great bond with the residents, and I met amazing people. There was a man in there named Walter Schnell who was a Holocaust survivor and to hear his story was something. He was in an internment camp and was sent to China to a Jewish community and he spent most of his years there. Walter’s stories of survival were so life-changing; how could anyone ever be the same after experiences like that!
My experience at the Jewish home was so powerful. My mother, who is 95, was just accepted as a resident in the Jewish home and one of the reasons I was able to get her residency there was due to something I had done 40 years ago, without any thought of reward for it. Life takes unexpected, beautiful turns.
Q. I understand you started playing the piano by ear as a 5-year-old. Your mother, Florence, was an amateur tap dancer, and your father, Edward was an amateur singer.
MF: My parents bought a new house and had saved $500 to buy furniture for the living room. My father impulsively said, ‘let’s get a piano,’ because my parents loved music. There was so much music around our house. My mother had been a professional tap dancer until she married. I must have soaked up all of that music and when they bought this upright piano, much to my mother’s irritation because she did want to buy furniture, I sat down and started playing the piano with both hands, right off the bat. My father was not home but my mother came into the room and asked me who had taught me to play, and I told her no one had taught me. My mother didn’t believe me; she didn’t think it was possible for me to play the piano without some sort of instruction and I was sent to my room to lie down.
Q. Oy, seriously?
MF: Yes, seriously. I stayed in my room until my father came home later that night and realized I was playing the piano by ear. The ability to play like that is something that has always been with me, and it’s always been natural. I believe in reincarnation so I think I must have come in with some past memory that stuck.
Q. You moved to Los Angeles when you were 20. How did you meet the widow of Oscar Levant? I understand she introduced you to Ira Gershwin in July 1977 and you became his assistant. You’ve kept the name and the Gershwin music alive and prominent all these years. Would you talk about those years with Ira and the influences he had on you?
MF: Absolutely. Indeed, I was introduced to Leonore Gershwin by Julie Levant with whom I had become friends by a series of amazing coincidences, even though now I don’t believe in coincidences. The moment I met Ira it felt just as if we were long lost cousins. There was an immediate connection regardless of the fact that he was 80 and I was 20. I began cataloguing his phonograph records which I thought would take a couple of weeks, but I ended up there for six months working just on that project. I would see Ira every day and he became fascinated by this 20-year-old kid who knew so much about his work. He was at a point in his life where he thought the world had passed him by. Here was this young man who knew so much about his work, he almost found it freaky in the sense that I knew facts about his life that he didn’t know. One day we had a gentle argument about what date something had happened. Ira said it was 1930 because this and this had happened, and I told him actually it was 1931 and I found a reference book to show him what the chronology was. Ira said, ‘OK, you are right, but you have an advantage over me,’ and I asked what he meant. He told me he had only lived his life, but that I had totally researched it.
We had a very close and loving relationship because Ira had no children. He would have been a wonderful father but his wife didn’t want kids and so I became the surrogate son or grandson that he never had. It was life changing for me because I had moved to Los Angeles less than a year earlier playing in piano bars trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life and suddenly things crystallized, and I felt I had a greater purpose. I still played in piano bars, which was my main income until I was hired on a full-time basis by Ira and that lasted six years. That period, ages 20 – 26, is very impactful and important in anyone’s life and it helped to crystallize a lot of things in my world personally, spiritually, and professionally.
Q. You are an incredibly talented performer, composer, arranger, musical director, and author. You’ve received three honorary doctorates, and your book, “The Gershwins & Me,” is a best-seller published by Simon & Schuster. Which of one of your numerous talents most defines you? If I asked you what you are, what would you say?
MF: I would say lucky! I’ve been very lucky. I’m a singer, an interpreter of American popular song and a conservator of it. I’ve amassed this huge collection of music and artifacts relating to it just to save and preserve it. I’m lucky that I can perform the music that I love because the world and the audiences are changing. I was in my late 20s when my career began to garner national attention and yet, I discovered music finds new fans. It doesn’t diminish in power.
Q. You’ve joined forces with Yean-Yves Thibaudent presenting, “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More.” Please talk about the collaboration and what sparked this amazing collaboration?
MF: Johnny Thibaudent is one of the greatest living concert pianists. He truly is a global sensation in that he plays concerts in every corner of the world. He plays a varied repertoire. In other words, many concert pianists will do a tour where they play the same repertoire with an orchestra in recitals in different cities; it’s one program. He plays multiple programs with great depth and interpretive brilliance and his musical palette is very, very broad. We’ve been friends for 30 years and became closer through the years and talked about collaborating but couldn’t figure out what it would be because our worlds are so different; our approach to music is different. I play mainly extemporaneously, and he doesn’t. He plays mainly what’s on the page better than anybody. We realized that the bridge of Gershwin was a common bond. When he was 13, growing up in France, he discovered the world of Gershwin, and it changed his life. I had the same experience. It was that shared love for something that transcends culture and time and space that brought us together. We put together a program that is primarily American popular song, although it does include “Rhapsody in Blue,” and we present the music largely played on two pianos. Gershwin loved two pianos and often wrote for two pianos and then I sang, of course. The Gershwin songs, along with the music of Richard Rogers and other composers of the era, are presented in a style that is, in some ways, more authentic to the composers’ original intention but also has more of a contemporary sensibility to it. The programs have been received rapturously. We just did two nights with the Boston Pops, which was our first incarnation of this program with a symphony orchestra and there was pandemonium in the audience. The reaction was so fervent and touching and we are on to something, and we are thrilled. It brings together two different audiences that seem to be very complimentary.
Q. I spent a day interviewing your dear friend, Liza Minnelli. Please talk about Liza and your upcoming touring show, “Get Happy, a tribute to Judy Garland.”
MF: I’m very proud of this program that pays tribute to Judy Garland. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to assemble. The enormity of her talent and legend is such that I didn’t know that I had the wherewithall to properly convey her greatness. It truly is because of Liza that I continued to pursue the project because I was ready to give it up at any point if I couldn’t give it justice. I didn’t want to do anything that was half baked. As I continued to assemble the program, as I figured out what it should be and shouldn’t be, I enlisted the aid of several wonderful people, including John Fricke who has an archive of thousands of photographs of Garland and Judy Garland’s family. That stockpile of material, along with things that Liza and her family made available to me, helped me to assemble a program that is very historical and very entertaining with anecdotes. It celebrates the incredible art that she, as a performing artist, displayed even from her earliest years.
I realized that I had the opportunity to tell her story focusing on the talent, her singing, and her legacy as opposed to the tabloid stuff. It celebrates her; it doesn’t whitewash anything, but it focuses on the enduring part of her legacy. The response of people in the audience was quite extraordinary. There is something about her energy that is very personal to people and very powerful. There are numerous visuals in the show, several film clips and there’s audio, including a lost recording of hers that I found and in which I accompany her. The culminative effect is extraordinary. Part of the time people are looking at the visuals while I am singing and I don’t mind that at all because the show is about her and I am the tour guide, if you will.
Q. Your bio is so prolific it’s hard to put it all into an interview. Your Emmy Award-nominated TV special, “Michael Feinstein – The Sinatra Legacy,” which was taped live in 2011, was a huge success. You were the principal Pops conductor for the Pasadena POPS and, under your direction, the Pasadena POPS has become one of the country’s premier presenters of the Great American Songbook. You still serve as artistic director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., and you perform over 150 times a year. Where does this incredible energy and passion come from?
MF: Well, thank you. As far as energy goes, I believe the universe provides infinite energy and one of the feelings of contemporary society is the lack of, and recognition of, the understanding that there is a source of infinite energy that is available to us. I focus on that spiritual energy. Having the great gift of being able to do something I love isn’t something I take for granted.
Q. I’m a huge fan of the Great American Songbook. Please talk about your passion for preserving the music and songs of the Great American Songbook and your foundation, The Great American Songbook Foundation, which you founded in 2007.
MF: The Great American Songbook Foundation is something I created a number of years ago for the purpose of preserving the American popular music that is so important to me. I felt it was in danger of disappearing in that someone needed to bring attention to the music for younger generations. I created it to not only preserve the amazing artifacts that I’ve accrued through the years, but also to educate and introduce young people to the songbook. I find that when young people hear these songs, they like them; they respond to them. They have meaning and resonance and they take their place next to whatever pop music they listen to. It was created just to preserve something that mattered to me where I felt there was a need for an organization to focus on that. It has grown by leaps and bounds. We are building a museum. It is a Grammy Foundation affiliate and only a few other museums can claim that affiliation.
In addition, we created a summer academy, The Great American Songbook Academy. Forty young people from all over the United States come and participate for one week. It is songbook intensive, and they learn about American popular music and, thus, they can add this music to their lives. Through music, you can create healing; you can teach anything, and music has the potential to offer tremendous transformation and that is certainly a mission for me.
Q. Please tell us how to contribute to this noble cause.
MF: At its core, music is one of the most important forces in the world, in the universe. In its most simplistic terms, to think of soldiers going off to battle bolstered by the music being played as they march. Music transforms, heals, inspires, raises consciousness, and offers hope. All of that is encoded into any given piece of music. To bring awareness of this, especially to young people, is a holy pursuit. Like all non-profit arts organizations, we are always happy for likeminded souls to contribute in any way they see fit. People tend to devalue the arts.
People don’t think that contributing to an arts organization is as important as contributing to a cancer or similar organization but they both offer healing in different ways. To me, they are equally important. Arts bring together people from different backgrounds and we find our common ground through it, and it transforms and heals. I’ve seen it time and time again, starting with those days when I started playing in convalescent and retirement homes. I saw many whose quality of life improved through music. There is research that shows that people who have music played during their last days on earth need 40 percent less medications. There are scientific proven effects of music played for people who are ill and going through transition. It is all quite extraordinary. The experience of being involved in music is the greatest blessing of my life.
Q. Your travel schedule keeps you constantly on the road. Is there one item one of the most legendary performers never leaves home without?
MF: I am vegan, and I never leave home without protein powder. I also have a deck of oracle cards that I travel with called “The Cosmic Deck of Initiation,” because it moves me to my heart. I also always have that, and a little book called “The Quiet Mind.”
- Renee Werbin
- Michael Feinstein
- Grammy Award
- Ira Gershwin
- Great American Songbook Foundation
- Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board
- Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More
- Yean-Yves Thibaudent
- Liza Minnelli
- Judy Garland
- Pasadena POPS
- Palladium Center for the Performing Arts
- The Cosmic Deck of Initiation