When cabaret star Bobby Short died last week, Manhattan lost not only a legendary performer — “He elevated the humble role of the piano-bar entertainer to an art,” said The New York Times — but also a high-priced nightclub act: The Café Carlyle had been charging $95 admission to see the 80-year-old singer-pianist.
Kansas City has had its own history of launching lounge acts to stardom. Marilyn Maye was belting out standards at the old Colony Restaurant when Tonight Show host Steve Allen discovered her in the 1960s; 20 years later, the pop act Tears for Fears found Oleta Adams doing her thing at the Westin Crown Center’s now-defunct Signboard Lounge.
Maye returns to the restaurant and nightclub Jardine’s (4536 Main Street) next month, and for a significantly lower ticket price than the Café Carlyle’s. (The cover for her shows is $20.) Still, she’s a legend in her own right, mixing traditional cabaret standards with unexpected material (such as Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive”). Even better, Maye’s act includes celebrity pianist Billy Stritch, who will probably inherit Short’s mantle as the quintessential male cabaret singer.
But Jardine’s isn’t the only venue in town where singer-pianists still ply their craft. Despite the proliferation of satellite music systems in the restaurant world, some places still book live cabaret-style acts such as Candace Evans, who has a regular gig on Wednesday nights at EBT (1310 Carondelet Drive) and also performs at Plaza III, Ivy’s and Ophelia’s.
“I don’t mind performing when people are eating,” Evans says. “I think they’re more quiet and attentive when they’re eating. Audiences are much louder when I’m playing in a lounge.”
Evans commands a certain amount of attention, even during the dinner hour. Pianist Rano Papini, who tinkles the keyboard at The American Restaurant (200 East 25th Street) five nights a week, says his performance is more about “creating an ambience” than about entertaining a crowd. “I know I’m providing background music,” he says, “but there’s an art to that. I think music totally transforms the room.”
The Raphael Restaurant (325 Ward Parkway) and its lounge share the same space, so when singer-pianist Alan Stribling works the room three nights a week, he has to soothe both the diners and the drinkers. “He starts out playing softer music during the dinner hours, then gets more lively,” says manager Leonard Duff. “I mean, people get up and start dancing, and we don’t even have a dance floor.”
There’s no cover charge, either, which is also something to sing about.