Jane Monheit knows firsthand the life-changing influence that music can have on a young life. As a schoolgirl growing up in the late 1980s on the south shore of Long Island, where the right jeans and the right sneakers were required, Monheit was all wrong. Her hair was wrong, her clothes were wrong and the music she favored was wrong.
“I was a total misfit. I was totally bullied,” Monheit recalls. But she did have a voice that she knew, even then, was very right.
“I’ve always been able to sing. I’ve always had a voice for jazz. I don’t know why, but it made me so confident. I was fiercely proud of it,” Monheit says from her home in upstate New York. “I was always one of those people with an inordinate amount of confidence, more than I should have. Jazz definitely helped build that.”
Monheit began singing professionally in her teens, was the runner-up in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute vocal competition at age 20, and released her critically lauded 2000 debut album, “Never Never Land,” at age 22.
The twice Grammy-nominated vocalist, now the 35-year-old mother of a 4-year-old son, has performed at Carnegie Hall and in hallowed New York jazz halls such as Birdland, the Rainbow Room and the Blue Note, as well as on the “Today” show and the David Letterman show. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden minced no words, calling her “a prodigious stylist whose gorgeous vocal throb is a phenomenon unto itself.”
This weekend, three weeks before the release of her 11th album, “The Heart of the Matter,” Monheit will share the confidence-building powers of jazz with local music students as part of an intimate and innovative pair of performances in the Horvitz Auditorium at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale/Nova Southeastern University.
The Friday-Saturday concerts are part of a new series called “Up Close and Personal at Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale,” and combine a casual “cabaret”-style evening concert followed the next morning by an even-more-laidback “master class” Q&A gathering, in which the visiting artist performs and interacts with local students. The series is a group effort by the museum, NSU and the Venetian Arts Society, led by local arts impresario William Riddle, who has for several years created cultural salons in a variety of locations around Fort Lauderdale.
Saturday morning’s master class will draw students from NSU, Broward College and the University of Miami. It is open to the public for $20. Students and faculty from all area schools will be admitted for free.
For Riddle, the series is an ambitious but necessary extention of the salon programming he started in 2010 with recurring gatherings at Inspired Interiors, formerly on the ground floor of the Venezia condos in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Those music and art events drew crowds in the dozens, while the Horvitz Auditorium seats 250. Tickets sales have been brisk, Riddle says.
“This is a giant step, to go to the Museum of Art and a larger audience, with a more-sophisticated level of performer,” Riddle admits. “But there is definitely an audience for this.”
The series got a test run last November with Miami-raised opera singer Elizabeth Caballero. But a last-minute scheduling conflict (involving her role in “Madama Butterfly”) forced the concert to be moved to a Wednesday, which Riddle says “killed ticket sales.”
For reasons that go beyond Monheit’s resume, Riddle says the singer is the perfect performer to give the series a reboot. Friday night’s concert will have a “nontraditional,” cabaret feel, Riddle says, and he was looking for a musician who could share stories, deconstruct songs and engage the audience in an entertaining way. (Other vocalists on the series include stage performer Avery Sommers, June 28-29, and opera star Leona Mitchell, Oct. 25-26.)
“What draws me to an artist is, basically, honesty,” Riddle says. “Everything about what Jane presents is real, it’s honest, not a facade.”
The marketing flier for this weekend’s performances touts the opportunity to meet an “icon” of jazz, which ellicits an honest laugh from Monheit.
“I crack up laughing when I read something calling me ‘the sensuous jazz chanteuse,’ ” says the singer, whose album covers do not hide her sultry side. “Have these people met me? Most of the time, I feel like a big dork 9-year-old.”
Monheit has adventurous tastes when it comes to her recordings, ranging from past covers of songs by pop artists such as Fiona Apple (“Slow Like Honey”) and Corinne Bailey Rae (“Like a Star”) to her new album’s treatment of the Beatles (“The Long and Winding Road”) and the “Sesame Street” classic “Sing.” But make no mistake: Monheit’s heart is in the Great American Songbook, and she is a serious student of jazz vocalism.
As the young singers will learn on Saturday morning, it is performers with a fearless commitment to personal expression that provided a role model for Monheit. Singers such as Sarah Vaughan and Judy Garland (“so underappreciated, Judy could really swing”) performed with an authenticity that cannot be simulated, she says.
“Sarah Vaughan was important to me, because she was able to sing and improvise, which everyone must do. But she did it with a full instrument, a full voice,” Monheit says. “There is no such thing as sounding ‘jazzy.’ It’s either there or it isn’t.”
Perhaps fittingly, Monheit’s entire weekend will have an improvisational feel to it. She’ll create a set list about an hour before Friday evening’s performance in the Horvitz Auditorium, which will feature Monheit alone onstage with longtime pianist and arranger Michael Kanan. The duet format is something she and Kanan (“the big brother I never had”) have fun with.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a 1,000-seat hall or a 100-seat room, I want the audience to feel the same way. I’ll be cracking jokes, being myself. The duo shows are very special for us,” Monheit says.
The unpredictable nature of Saturday morning’s master class is also appealing for Monheit. Kanan will again be the accompanist as Monheit performs, chats and works with individual vocal students in front of the audience.
“I love working with other singers, especially young ones,” she says. “What we have found is that there are many fine, incredible talents all over. It’s a great joy to be able to work with them.”
IF YOU GO
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-noon Saturday
Where: Horvitz Auditorium at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas. Blvd.
Cost: $60 Friday, $20 Saturday (students and educators free). $85 VIP includes admission to both and meet-and-greet champagne reception with Monheit.
Contact: MOAFL.org, 954-262-0249 or email@example.com
Photo: Timothy Saccenti