“I first heard Libby York in the best way you can hear somebody. Totally unexpectedly, and as a surprise. I was listening to that wonderful Singers Unlimited show on a Sunday morning from a great jazz station in Newark, and I heard a voice singing ‘Sunday in New York.’ I sat up from my waffles and said, ‘Who is THAT?’ Minutes later, I went online and found one of her wonderful recordings and I have been a keen fan of hers ever since. I have written six books and hundreds of pieces for the New Yorker magazine, but nothing in my professional life makes me prouder than that I got to write the liner notes for Libby York’s last record. She swings. She’s tender. She knows how to sell an emotion without overselling it. And she just embodies a certain spirit of jazz which is all too precious and all too rare.” — Adam Gopnik, author; contributing journalist, The New Yorker magazine
“This is my home,” she said. And it continues to be her hub of operations.
Ms. York graduated from the American University in Washington, D.C., and was musically influenced early on by her parents.
“Both of my parents sang and played piano,” she said. Her early influences included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin and Rosemary Clooney.
“My last record was in a way an homage to Rosemary Clooney,” she said.
Then, in 1974, she says, “We opened a restaurant, the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a resort on the ocean for the Washington, D.C. crowd. It’s still there!”
When the place closed for the winter that year, a friend suggested Key West as a place she might want to visit, so she did. And her visits continued after that.
“My first piano teacher, Yehuda Guttman, was here in Key West, a Julliard scholar who once played at Carnegie Hall,” she said. Mr. Guttman’s son later started Key West’s cab company, Five Sixes Taxi.
“I performed once for Tennessee Williams at the Rose Tattoo, named after his play (and movie). I placed a rose on his plate.” And then, coincidentally, “I was the assistant stage manager for the opening season of the Tennessee Williams Theatre. (The Tennessee Williams play) was called ‘Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?’ It ran once, but never again. I still have pictures and the program from the original show.”
And in another ironic twist, she now performs “Libby in the Lobby” on occasion at that same theater with Bobby Nesbitt. “I can’t wait to do that again,” she said.
She met guitarist Franklin Micane at the Pier House in 1981, and he invited her to sit in.
“I’ll never forget: I sang Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day.’ He asked me to come join him in New York. I got a summer sublet in the Village with nothing but a bed and piano, and we had our first gig, with just three songs. But I was bit. I stayed in New York.”
She got her first job from an ad in The Village Voice.
“It was with an eight-piece band called Swing Street, for dancers,” she said.
Over the years, she graced the Waldorf Astoria, the Metropolitan, Kitano Hotel and numerous small clubs.
“I toured throughout Paris and performed at the Cafe Laurent,” Ms. York said.
She works hard, but it’s clear that she loves what she does. And from the mountains of accolades she’s earned, it is apparent that she is extraordinarily good at it, which, in turn, keeps her extraordinarily busy.
“When you’re your own agent, you’re always looking for work. Now I can pick and choose. I enjoy what I refer to as a Listening Room,” she said, referring to a room without annoying distractions, designed for music lovers with discerning ears and tastes.
One such room is the Little Room Jazz Club on Duval Street here in Key West, where Ms. York will be performing most Wednesdays throughout the season. It is a warm, upscale, intimate space in which connoisseurs of fine wine and fine music regularly congregate. In New York City, she might perform with a trio of musicians, but here, she is usually accompanied by one, such as guitarist Tim McAlpine.
Keep an eye out for Libby York performances at the Studios of Key West, too. The best way to keep up with her past, present and future endeavors, and to see videos from some of her memorable performances, is to check out her website: www.LibbyYork.com. She is easy to find on YouTube as well.
In February, she’ll take a break from the island and head to Paso Robles to teach and entertain there, including a master class at Cuesta College on Feb. 3, and performing at the Paso Robles’ D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars Feb. 5.
Then she’ll be back to Key West for March 5-6 performances of “Libby York: Still on the Road – Here’s to Life” at Truman’s Little White House, which is always a sell-out. She performs this show in Harry Truman’s living room, where there are just ten tables. (Tickets are $60, available at KeysTix.com.)
“I’m very excited to be performing with Woody Allen (no, not that one), the lead guitarist for the Survivors,” she said. The Survivors are typically known more for their calypso, folk and jazz genres, so this should be an interesting mix.
Her new record release, “Memoir,” named among the Top Ten by KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz, has garnered rave reviews, including these from her website:
“... a jazz singer of cool composure and artful subtlety...” – Nate Chinen, The New York Times.
“... relaxed perfection...” – C. Michael Bailey, All About Jazz.
“... her wit and easy swing.” – The New Yorker.
“Her smoky voice will appeal to Diana Krall fans, but she is very much her own woman.” – The Times of London.
“There are a lot of wonderful female vocalists on the scene today, and one of the best is Libby York.” Joe Lang, JerseyJazz.
“… every inch Diana Krall’s equal … warm, intimate and imbued with a fogbound sexiness.” Christopher Louden, JazzTimes.
“It’s hard to imagine a voice more suited to classic jazz standards than that of Libby York.” Roark Littlefield, Stage Buddy. And the list of praise goes on and on.
Ms. York is already working on her next project, one she will record in New York. “There will be some interesting new things on the new CD,” she promises.
Referring to the classification of her timeless music, she says, “I prefer ‘Great American Songbook’ over standards or covers. Like Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin. I love them.”
With a seemingly endless library of fascinating stories of fascinating people, she recounts meeting Leonard Bernstein.
“After dinner at Antonia’s house (the namesake of the popular Duval Street restaurant), we were drinking grappa with Leonard Bernstein, when Lenny says, “Libby, let’s go to the piano and sing some blues.” We did Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow.’”
She has a list of about 20 songs she wants to do. For example, she said, “I love Jobim’s ‘This Happy Madness.’”
I asked Ms. York why Key West has remained her hub, after experiencing a big-city metropolitan lifestyle.
“It’s the people,” she said. “There’s such a cosmopolitan, international group of people right here. The beauty. The homes. The tropical air. I can ride my bike everywhere. I can swim every day.”
Catch a Libby York performance the next time you see her name on a marquee.
“I’m just a singer of fine songs who works with jazz musicians,” she concluded. “Great jazz musicians. That’s the difference between jazz and cabaret. It’s got to swing!”
And Ms. York does. ¦