Saturday, June 7, 2014

OUTRAGED!

On Sunday morning, September 13, 1963, four girls were murdered by four members of the Klu Klux Klan in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was targeted because it was often used as a meeting place by civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. Judy Garland, feeling the pain of the mothers who lost their children in the bombing, gathered her friends Carolyn Jones and June Allyson, and their daughters, and called a press conference where, on behalf of mothers everywhere, she demanded an end to the the hate, the racism, the senselessness, and the stupidity. She was outraged, she was angry, she was frightened, and her wail was heard, understood, and felt, by mothers the world over. Initially, one of the murderers was only given a hundred dollar fine and a six month jail sentence. But history caught up with him, and in 1977 he was retried and sentenced to life in prison. Another of the murderers was dead by 2000, when the other two were FINALLY tried and convicted. The names of the girls killed in the bombing are Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A QUEEN AND HER CONSORTS


An essay/review by Jared Kenwood
Featuring interviews with Billy Stritch and  Ross Konikoff

After twenty-one years, the legendary Liza Minnelli returned to the Broward Center For The Performing Arts in FT. Lauderdale, Florida on February 16th. This time kicking off a brand new tour called Simply Liza, A show devoted to songs that have been most requested by her fans. It’s an hour and a half of just Liza, and her band of seven, in a very intimate show.  

One could only feel a wave of exhilaration and anticipation sweeping over them as the band played the overture. Then Liza walked out onto the stage, sending the sold-out house into rapturous applause. Dressed in all black, draped with a red scarf around her neck, and looking absolutely stunning, she greeted the audience, “Wow! Hi Guys!” And immediately launched into her opening number, “Teach Me Tonight”. A reminiscence of her Radio City days, despite the voice having changed since, she sounds strong and determined to give it her all. And boy, does she deliver.  

Being the daughter of Hollywood’s greatest director, Vincente Minnelli, and legendary entertainer, Judy Garland, it was only natural that talent would be in Liza’s DNA. Lets not get carried away though because success was something that she had achieved all on her own. For years it has been over emphasized that Liza is the daughter of two famous people, and that paved a way for a show biz career. But for Liza, it only meant that she had to work twice as hard. Minnelli is a star in her own right. In 1965 Liza landed the title role in Flora, The Red Menace, and at 19 years old she was the first young person to win a Tony award for Best Actress in a musical for her performance. Not long after was she releasing albums and performing in nightclubs.  By 1973, Liza Minnelli reached legendary status, receiving an Oscar for the 1972 film Cabaret and later an Emmy Award for her first television concert, Liza with a “Z”. 

Liza then sits down and goes right into her second number, a beautiful medley of “Here I’ll Stay”/ “Our Love Is Hear To Stay”, it’s touching lyrics cause Liza to choke up, “I get emotional,” she admits to the Broward audience, who respond with cheers of empathy. 
“Listen, do you mind if I just keep sitting down?” Liza asks the audience, and explains about her injured foot, a consequence resulting from trying to get a handsome man’s attention at the pool.  Not even an injured foot could keep her from the stage. Having already sacrificed both knees and hips from a lifetime of extensive dance numbers, what’s a sprained ankle? Nothing seems to stop her. 

The next number she performs is a quaint and rather jaunty number, written especially for her by Fred Ebb and John Kander, “Liza with a “Z”.  The song serves as a reminder that its Liza and not Lisa. There is a moment of Minnelli on Minnelli as Liza sings a beautiful song, “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” from her Father’s film, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. As she sings the song, she jokingly throws in her own lyric, “What did I have that I don’t have? ‘Balance’ ” The audience roars with laughter. 
The set-list continues with two Charles Aznavour songs,  “You’ve Let Yourself Go” and “What Makes A Man a Man”. 
Then comes the beautiful ballad, “Maybe This Time” more famously known from the film Cabaret, she is singing it more beautiful then ever. There is a solo behind the voice, while she sings “Everybody, oh they love a winner, so nobody loved me,” Ross Konikoff on trumpet creates the most lovely bit of music to fill in her phrases. “I love playing big, beautiful solos,” says Konikoff, “ always aspiring to play the way Harry James used to, soaring into the sky with his incredible, emotional sound and style, and the fact that Liza lets me do that is reason alone to love her forever.” 
And love her forever is what her fans will continue to do, and so comes the next song, the title song from the film Cabaret where she can only love her fans in return by reassuring them that when she goes, “I’m NOT going like Elsie.” 

Liza then decides to take a break and hands over the mic to another singing talent on the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it should say, the show is ‘Liza Minnelli with Billy Stritch, my wonderful arranger and composer. Wait until you hear this. Oh Billy, I’m crazy about you.”
 Billy Stritch, a talented singer and pianist, croons “No Moon At All”.  Originally recorded in the 1940s by Nat “King” Cole, “No Moon At All” is a perfect song for Stritch’s unique vocals, his ability to scat and play piano. He sings like the singers of the 40s but better and with a modern day twist. 
“It has been in my repertoire for a long time,” says Stritch, explaining why he chose to sing this particular number. “ It’s a great chance for me to scat sing and improvise, and it’s a song that’s not done by many people, so I like doing it.” To hear more from Billy Stritch look for his albums, especially Billy Stritch Sings Mel Torme which is overwhelmingly breathtaking. His talents have no limits. 

The two entertainers, Liza and Billy then come together and perform a beautiful duet of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” dedicating it anyone who has a birthday in the audience. 

“Singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with Liza is one of my favorite parts of the show,” says Billy, “I think it’s a nice moment in the show, not only for me but for Liza as well. It shows our collaboration and affection onstage and the audience seems to enjoy when we harmonize and sing together. We’re always thinking of new songs to do and perhaps there might be another duet or a different one in the show at some point. People seem to love when Liza sings the old standards and we always get a great response for “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. 

Billy has been with Liza for almost a quarter of a century. He had been working for nine years prior to that with his vocal group, Montgomery, Plant and Stritch
"We had already made a splash in New York,” Says Stritch. “having worked many engagements at the Algonquin Hotel Oak Room as well as concerts at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, so I had somewhat of a following in New York by then.” Then one night he was playing the piano in a restaurant and in walks Liza Minnelli, who was immediately drawn to him. 
“Liza was beginning rehearsals for her show "Stepping Out At Radio City Music Hall" and she invited me to be part of the creative team, crafting vocal arrangement for her and the twelve women who co-starred in the show. That was the beginning of my collaboration with Liza and the rest as they say is history. I've learned so much from this collaboration and I think Liza would say the same. She's made it possible for me to work all over the world and has certainly promoted me in ways that I never dreamed possible. She is unfailingly generous and kind and it has certainly been the most important professional relationship in my life. Twenty three years and counting....”

Liza continues her show with the song “Ring Them Bells” and three songs from her 2010 album Confessions. Proudly, Liza introduces her Band, “I love them so much and I’ve been with them so long. They are really the best. There’s not a lot them up here but we make quite a sound”.  The gentlemen in her band, dressed in white tuxedos, each play a very crucial role in creating this beautiful show. Some of these men have been with Liza for practically her whole career. Ross Konikoff first started out with Liza back in 1977 as a trumpet player for the Broadway musical The Act. 

“In the summer of 1977 I was called for a Broadway show called The Act, starring Liza Minnelli. I had certainly known of Liza, but until that point I had been primarily a jazz trumpet player.” Konikoff left Berklee College of Music in 1971 and moved to New York City and began performing with Show Bands. In 1973 he toured with Kiss Me Kate and in 1974 No No Nannette. Then from 1975 to 1977, Konikoff joined the Buddy Rich band, being offered the Jazz soloist position.
“The Act was great fun to play, “ Konikoff recalls. “The large orchestra was lined up against the back wall of the stage, all dressed in tuxedos, in full view for the entire show. I was seated next to Jay Leonhart, Liza's first bass player, and Bill Lavorgna, who had already been Liza's drummer for a few years. Liza was a ball to work with every night, looking back at the band or doing something to make us laugh.” 

Konikoff reflects on how he permanently joined Liza’s band, “When they announced the closing, Bill Lavorgna had a little talk with some of us and told us that Liza was taking her night club act on the road and that she wanted twelve of us to go with her to be her permanent band. I loved Liza and I loved traveling, so I accepted happily.” 
The places they traveled to have been all around the world, and it’s been quite an extraordinary journey, one that Ross Konikoff is very proud to be a part of. 
“I love traveling, and with Liza, it has always been absolutely first class. Nobody is more loving and respectful to her musicians than Liza. She let's me stand up and play my heart out on a few tunes and that makes me very happy. Then of course, playing for her as she sings has always been exciting and rewarding. We make music history every night. Who could ask for more? I am 50 times the trumpet player I might have been had I not met Liza and played in front of millions of people over these past 35 years.” 
In the 70s Konikoff had the privilege of being Liza’s dancing partner in a number “Everybody Gets The Blues”. “I was scared to death. I had never danced anything with anybody prior to that routine. Fred Ebb told me I could do it, and that he would make me a star! Everybody Gets The Blues started with me playing some soulful, bluesy licks all alone, indicating that I was feeling very sad. Then Liza turned around and asked me what was wrong. We had a little back and forth, then I walked down next to her and she sang as we danced this routine. I played at her, she sang at me and by the end I was all cheered up and ran back to my chair.” 
Simply Liza draws to a close with Liza singing her two highly anticipated songs “But The World Goes Round” and of course,  “New York, New York.” She then encores with an emotional rendition of, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, leaving the audience wanting more. There is simply no other performer like Liza Minnelli. 

For those who missed this One-night only performance at the Broward Center, perhaps in the near future Liza Minnelli will bring her Simply Liza show back to South Florida. The Broward show was most certainly a success. 
“I love Florida,” says Konikoff, “Getting my life batteries recharged by that beautiful, pure sunlight is the best thing there is to keep one alive and healthy. Any time I have the opportunity to go to Florida, I am thrilled. In addition, the Broward Center theater is a fantastic place to perform. The whole group looks forward to performing there at every opportunity.” 
Liza Minnelli and Jared Kenwood

Special Thanks to Ross Konikoff and Billy Stritch for allowing me an unforgettable interview. I want to also thank Daniel at The Judy Garland Experience and Steve Rothaus for helping me to share my story. This article is dedicated to my Grandmother, Beverly Yablonka who passed away a few days prior to the concert. I’ll love you forever. 

Sunnyvale

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