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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - Michael Feinstein to play Benaroya Hall
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - Michael Feinstein to play Benaroya Hall

by Eric Andrews-Katz- SGN Contributing Writer

Michael Feinstein
July 16
Benaroya Hall


Michael Feinstein started playing piano at age five and his career was set before him. With piano playing that rivals the greatest musicians, Michael has played the music of both Gershwin brothers, Jule Styne and Burtan Lane among others and performed alongside singers Bette Midler, Rosemary Clooney and Linda Eder, to name a few. Taking music preservation as a personal quest, Michael is currently the archivist for the Great American Songbook Collection.

With a new tour of Frank Sinatra's music, Michael Feinstein took time away from the piano bench to talk to the Seattle Gay News in preparation for his Benaroya Hall concert.

Eric Andrews-Katz: At an early age you took piano lessons and angered your teachers because you preferred to play music "by ear." How much later was it that you finally learned to read music?

Michael Feinstein: Actually, never. Ninety percent of the time I still play by ear. I can read a melody line from a popular song, but I still can't read scores of music. It's laborious for me at best. I'm not proud of that, but I never did learn.

Andrews-Katz: How do you define "The Great American Songbook Collection"?

Feinstein: The Great American Songbook is a loose term. It's hard to quantify the specific years it encompasses and songs that stand the test of time. Usually these songs are primarily associated with the 1920s-50s; the Golden Era of Creativity for America's popular music. But Billy Joel and Carol King are included; the subject is ever-evolving.

Andrews-Katz: What responsibilities do you hold as its archivist?

Feinstein: As time progresses, I realize that it's important to me to collect the music and to share it with others, for those interested and those of younger generations that don't know anything about this [era] of music yet. I want this to survive.

Andrews-Katz: In your early 20s, you started working as cataloger for the personal collection of Ira Gershwin. Would you say he was a mentor or more of a friend?

Feinstein: I think we have to define those words first.

Andrews-Katz: That's very true. Let's try, was Ira Gershwin a personal influence on you?

Feinstein: I learned a lot of what I know from Ira, on how to interpret this type of music. He was there when they were written - if he didn't write it himself - and so he was living history. He was very generous in how he shared his knowledge with me. My time with him was my college education.

Andrews-Katz: Would you say Ira Gershwin was a personal friend?

Feinstein: We became very close friends. He was like a grandfather to me and left me in charge of his estate, with two others. I was one of his executors, which was born out of his trust and faith in me. I've never forgotten that.

Andrews-Katz: How did you get to know Gershwin's next-door neighbor, Rosemary Clooney?

Feinstein: Rosemary had quite a few cats and Mrs. Gershwin bought fresh shrimp daily. The cats were always over. Mrs. Gershwin would tell me, "Rosemary is not taking care of her cats, go over and tell her that her cats are undernourished." I'd go next door and eventually we became good friends.

Andrews-Katz: You've done classic collaborations like Jerry Herman, as well more contemporary ones like John Bucchino. Do you have a favorite composer whose work you prefer?

Feinstein: I don't have one favorite. What makes it more difficult is that I don't consider contemporary composers to be any less talented than any of the "masters." It's a very difficult thing in choosing one genius over another.

Andrews-Katz: You have one nightclub in Manhattan and the newly opened Feinstein's at the Shaw in London. What made you decide to open the nightclubs, and do you have any desire to open a third?

Feinstein: Like many other entertainers, I had a fantasy of opening a nightclub. Thanks to my friendship with the owners of the Regency in New York, it came true. That allowed me to spread my wings and open the second one. I wanted to do it simply because there is something special about performing songs in an intimate setting, playing that genre of music. Playing for 150-250 people can be just as fulfilling as playing for 150,000. I'd like to open another in San Francisco; it's always been special to me. I had some of my early success there, and I have a connection to the city.

Andrews-Katz: If you could perform with any singer -living or dead - who would it be?

Feinstein: Ethel Waters. She died in 1977 and she was one of the pioneers of American popular singing. She continues to be one of my favorite inspirations. She's largely forgotten, but her influence was extraordinary. I would have loved to be in her presence. Although, to those who knew her, she did have a reputation of being a difficult person.

Andrews-Katz: What was it like to work recently with Washington State native Cheyenne Jackson at your club?

Feinstein: We had a fantastic time. He is a dazzling singer. Too bad he's ugly! [Sarcastic laugh.] Seriously, Cheyenne is a marvelous artist. We both had fun and were as comfortable on stage as if we were in our own living room, and that kind of comfort level only comes synergistically; it's not something you can plan. Musically, we are both proud of what we've accomplished. We want to work together again. He's very facile. He's also just a heck of a lot of fun!

Andrews-Katz: How long have you and your husband, Terrance Flannery, been together?

Feinstein: We'll be together 12 years. We were married in October 2008 in Los Angeles.

Andrews-Katz: With Judge Judy Sheindlin performing the ceremony?

Feinstein: We were together and didn't feel any urgency to get married, but Judy urged and felt it would be important for us to do it, emotionally and physically, and she was right! She is very much in support of marriage equality. She was also pleased to perform a ceremony because it demonstrated her beliefs. She has 10 million viewers and is characteristically not afraid to express her point of view. She had to receive legal authority to sign our marriage license in California, so she called Maria Shriver, I think, to get authority.

Andrews-Katz: How did you come up with the current concert tribute to Frank Sinatra?

Feinstein: Frank was very nice early in my career when he didn't have to be. I've never forgotten his kindness and I've wanted, for a while now, to celebrate his contribution to American popular music. I'm trying to give a sense of Sinatra without copying him. I love working with a big band. A 17-piece band creates a sheer power and sends a thrill up your spine. For me, there's a tremendous charge, but the audience experiences a powerful time. It's overwhelming in the most wonderful way there is, really.

Michael Feinstein made his professional debut 25 years ago. With a soft-spoken voice that is reminiscent of the crooner style of yesteryear, it is no wonder he's recorded more than 24 albums and is a four-time Grammy nominee. The Sinatra Project adds another venue for him as it marks Michael's first tribute to another performer.

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