There are a handful of clubs whose names immediately elicit memories of historic concerts and amazing performances. Such a hallowed hall is Birdland, now located at 315 W. 44th Street in New York, created in 1949 as a shrine to legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It has survived multiple relocations and periodic closings, and remains a mecca for jazz acts large or small.
This Thursday night, Jan. 26, one of Music City's premier duos returns to the famous site. Pianist Beegie Adair has made acclaimed LPs celebrating the compositions of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer and songs made famous by Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Adair will again be joined by vocalist Monica Ramey, whose debut CD Make Someone Happy established her among Nashville's finest, most versatile jazz vocalists. The duo will be performing at 6 p.m. EST prior to a performance by Tierney Sutton, hailed by Jazz Times and DownBeat as an A-lister among current female jazz singers.
While acknowledging that last year's Birdland debut was a thrill, Ramey says things are a bit different now. "I'm much more confident going in this time, though it is still quite exciting and a bit intimidating," Ramey says. "I hadn't spent a lot of time in New York before, and Beegie was quite a help. She prepared me for what to expect. This time I know more about the place, and am more calm about playing there. They really made us feel welcome. They were so warm and enthusiastic."
"They did everything to make it easy for us," Adair adds. "They made sure our guests were well treated. It is really the greatest place to work. The bartenders and waiters are very careful and respectful. They don't shake or blend anything during performances, and no one is going around to tables and asking people for orders while music is playing. You get a piano that is in great shape and in tune. The people all around you are really listening to what you're playing and are very encouraging. It is a refreshing place to play, a club that really respects the music and musicians."
The duo have a song list ready, but Ramey says it may be trimmed depending on how things go. "We have a little flexibility built in there," Ramey explains. "Once we get started, we may drop or add something, depending on the flow and feel. Last time it went so well, I think we ended up doing almost everything on our list."
Thursday's Birdland date continues a collaboration now in its fifth year between Adair and Ramey. Beegie Adair's extensive experience in jazz clubs, studios, with radio and TV orchestras, and all types of groups both local and national, dates back decades. She recalls such famous names as Hank Garland and Boots Randolph, and talks fondly about the days when jazz was played in downtown establishments, and she thought nothing of sitting in for hours at black clubs on Jefferson Street.
Ramey, another shining example of the Nashville Jazz Workshop's mentoring and training acumen, has been a Music City resident since 2000. But she's been singing since childhood. Ramey studied Music Performance at Indiana State University and was one of the ISU Jazz Singers. She met Adair during an NJW workshop.
"I was in this workshop and Beegie was doing the evaluation," Ramey recalls. "I was really scared of what she was going to say."
"I remember she sounded like a lark, she really could sing," Adair adds.
According to Adair, her partner has a really good ear. "She can hear things in a song and do things vocally that give me a lot of freedom as an accompanist. There are so many singers who have pitch problems. She's also a really hard worker. She pays attention and always strives for the right sound. Of course, she's studied under Sandra (Dudley), so you know she's gotten really good instruction."
"Beegie is a vocalist's pianist," Ramey responds when asked what she likes about working with Adair. "She knows lyrics. She's thoughtful about musical conversations, and she creates so many avenues. If I just take the right approach, I know she'll provide me with what I need."
"There are not many singers who can hear those harmonic opportunities if the pianist takes them," Adair says. "There are some singers I've played behind that never knew what to do if you tried to go in a different direction. Monica can make those moves. She really allows me to take a song in any direction."
Ramey and Adair will maintain busy schedules after their Birdland appearance. They are already comparing notes on songs for Ramey's second LP, which she begins recording later this year. It will be co-produced by Adair and NJW co-founder and bassist Roger Spencer, who's also a member of Adair's trio.
"When you have two people like Beegie and Roger producing, you really don't worry about any project," Ramey says. "I know the ideas that they'll bring to the session and the help that they'll give me will make it another success." The Adair trio, which also includes drummer Chris Brown, will be backing Ramey. In addition, the trio's new CD, The Real Thing, is also scheduled for release later this year. It will feature live performances recorded at the NJW's Jazz Cave.
But Thursday's Birdland show now takes center stage. "It's the type of thing you don't get used to, but you feel more at ease the second time," Ramey says.
"We're looking forward to seeing both old friends and new faces," Adair adds.
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