Tuesday, September 1, 2009
NAT HENTOFF WRITES ABOUT FRANK SINATRA JR.
Legendary writer and jazz critic Nat Hentoff spent an hour interviewing Frank Sinatra Jr. just a few months ago at the Blue Note. The result is this very interesting article, published in today's Wall St. Journal.
By NAT HENTOFF;
(image by Ken Fallin)
For years, I have been careful to follow the advice Duke Ellington gave me when I was in my early twenties: "Do not categorize music or musicians—like 'Dixieland' or 'modern.' Listen, open yourself, to each musician." I failed to heed Duke's counsel with regard to Frank Sinatra Jr.
Figuring he'd be a shadow of his irreplaceable father, I never listened to him live and I ignored his very few recordings until this spring. I heard his most recent CD, "That Face!," released on Rhino in 2006. Backed by an invigoratingly swinging big band, his singing made me feel good with his personal, signature sound, infectious jazz time and conversational phrasing.
That surprise led to a long interview with Mr. Sinatra at New York's Blue Note jazz club, where he was appearing. "If I were still producing jazz records," I told him, "I'd ask you to come into the studio. How come you've made so few?"
"There's very little demand for my recordings," he said wryly. But he works steadily in this country and overseas, usually with a 38-piece band. On this gig at the Blue Note, he fronted an octet.
"There aren't many clubs booking big bands left," he said. "Most clubs don't have the room, let alone the money for a big band. So we play in casino theaters—not Las Vegas or Reno but in the casino showrooms in the outlying areas. And for years, during the summer months, we've played state fairs, where I'm asked over and over by high-school band directors, 'You know where an old clarinet player or trumpet player can get a job?' Schools are closing out their music departments and selling off all the instruments."
Mr. Sinatra was born in Jersey City, N.J. on Jan. 10, 1944. For years he seldom saw his father, who was on the road either performing or making movies. But, starting as a kid, Mr. Sinatra wanted to become a piano player and songwriter. By his early teens, he was playing and singing one-nighters on the road. At 19 he became a vocalist with Sam Donahue's band.
"Donahue was a musicians' musician," Mr. Sinatra told me, and a great teacher. "The bulk of what I knew about singing with a band started then, hanging out with him and his musicians. From then on—like mechanics hang around with other mechanics—I stayed around musicians. One of my mentors was Duke Ellington. He took me under his wing."
And although he never had a hit record or television series or movie, Mr. Sinatra has kept performing. His last name gave him some access, but the obbligato of his career, as he describes it: "A famous father means that in order to prove yourself you have to work three times harder than the guy who comes in off the street with a song to sing."
By 1968 he had performed in 47 states and 30 countries; had guested on television shows; had had one of his own briefly in 1969; had opened for stars in Las Vegas's main rooms and had had his own bands in the lounges.
"When I was a boy," Mr. Sinatra says of that vital phase of his education, "my father would bring me to Las Vegas. I saw all the stars perform; and late at night, there would always be a name band performing in a lounge. I remember listening to Harry James, Count Basie and many other famous bands. I always try to recapture the spirit of those late-night sessions in my own show."
To honor the big-band tradition, he persists in being one of the few big jazz-band leaders still touring. The elder Sinatra was known for his rigorous rehearsals of his sizable bands before an engagement. So, too, the younger Mr. Sinatra. In "Frank Jr., the Unsung Sinatra," Wil Haygood's July 9, 2006 article in the Washington Post, Mr. Sinatra's guitarist Jim Fox said:
"He has such high standards. He knows every third trombone part, every cello part." And during a rehearsal of "The People That You Never Get to Love"—a song on "That Face!" that I can't get enough of—Mr. Haygood reported:
"Halfway through, Frank motions for quiet from the 38-piece orchestra, then walks over and leans on the piano. 'Let's try that again. It has to be half that volume, everybody. This is a lullaby. That's what it is."
In 1988, at the request of his father, the son served as conductor and musical director for the elder Sinatra in the last years of his performances. Poet-composer-singer Rod McKuen, a friend of the elder Sinatra's for 35 years, explained on his Web site why Sinatra summoned his son to be with him and why the younger Sinatra felt that the gig was so important:
"As the senior Sinatra outlived one by one all of his conductors and nearly every arranger, and began to grow frail himself, his son knew he needed someone that he trusted near him. . . . He was also savvy enough to know that performing was everything to his dad and the longer he kept that connection with his audience, the longer he would stay vital and alive.
"Sinatra the younger not only put his own career on hold to become his dad's conductor but he became Sr.'s closest confidant, his truest friend."
Mr. Sinatra told me about an assignment his father gave him a year or so before his last performance: "I want to make an album of ballads that swing. I want the best soloists. They all have to be songs I've never sung before."
"Great," said Mr. Sinatra. "Anything else?"
"No. Get outta here."
One of the songs he brought his father was "The People That You Never Get to Love," Rupert Holmes's haunting ballad that, I suspect, becomes part of every listener's autobiography.
"Where did you get this little puppy?" said the delighted father, eager to record it.
"Then age overtook him," Mr. Sinatra told me. "He never did make that album, or that song. So we do it, with the big orchestra, in the wonderful arrangement Nelson Riddle wrote."
"Sinatra Jr.," says Rod McKuen, "sings it every night, almost. It is one of the moments when the song brings to mind no one but himself. . . . [In time] the audience wises up to the fact that there is room for two Sinatras in this world after all. The beloved memory and the extraordinary new reality. . . . Each Sinatra will take his proper place."
After a 2003 performance by Mr. Sinatra, Richard Ginell wrote in the Jan. 16 Daily Variety: "Sinatra, Jr. might have had an easier time establishing himself had he gone into real estate. But his show made me awfully glad he decided music was his calling. There aren't too many singers around with Sinatra's depth of experience in big band music, or his knowledge of the classic American songbook. There are even fewer with such real feeling for the lyrics of a song, and such a knack for investing a song with style and personality."
There's yet another dimension to the singular son of Frank Sinatra. His composing includes a 15-minute song and monologue, "Over the Land" that is now housed in the National Archives. On the road as the nation's bicentennial was nearing, he thought of Francis Scott Key, who was on a ship in sight of Fort McHenry under British attack during the War of 1812.
"The next morning," Mr. Sinatra told me, "despite the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air, the colors of the flag had held, it was still flying, and that's how 'The Star Spangled Banner' eventually came into being. My music is about how that flag grew in impact, where it went and the troubles it survived during its travels."
"Over the Land," which he wrote in 1976, has yet to be publicly available on a recording. But it was performed by the U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra at Constitutional Hall in 1984, a performance that I doubt has ever been experienced by any other jazz singer. Because after it, "a U.S. Marine in dress uniform comes up to me at my office in New York and says, 'I have a warrant to commandeer this music.' He gave me a certificate that said of 'Over the Land' that 'This is the property of the United States.'" The marine explained these formalities were required for 'Over the Land' to be in the national archives.
That beats a Grammy.
Spending more time with the easeful storytelling of this companionable son of Frank Sinatra, I understood why his sidemen enjoy working with him. Over the years, I've heard similar stories about the elder Sinatra's generosity of spirit from musicians who worked with him.
With my interview with Mr. Sinatra ending, I asked—as I do of just about everyone I interview —"Is there anything you haven't accomplished yet that you want to do, and expect to do?"
There was a pause. "Success would be nice," he said. "Even a little, you know."
—Mr. Hentoff writes on jazz for the Journal.
To listen to Mr. Sinatra Jr.'s work, go to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204271104574292660988410636.html#articleTabs%3Darticle