“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 Sunday mornings, from our 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 One might assume praise so effusive would only be given to performers who wouldn’t dream of performing somewhere as small as Key West, but (as with most cultural gems) we are so lucky to have an artist like Libby York in our midst. Although Libby spends a lot of time traveling and performing in New York, her hometown of Chicago, Paris and Paso Robles, she still keeps a home in Key West that she bought back in 1980.
“This is my home,” she says. It continues to be her hub of operations and frequent stopover for all-too-brief performance engagements.
Libby graduated from the American University in Washington, D.C., and was influenced musically early on by her parents.
“Both of my parents sang and played piano,” she explains. Her early influences include Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin and Rosemary Clooney.“
In 1974, “We opened a restaurant, The Back Porch Café, 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, much like many of us Key West transplants, her visits continued after that.
“My first piano teacher, Yehudah Guttman, was here in Key West. He was a Julliard scholar who once played at Carnegie
Hall.” (In case there was any doubt that while Key West has a reputation for hosting debauched artist types, we also show some class every now and again.)
“I performed once for Tennessee Williams at the Rose Tattoo (where Bagatelle now sits on Duval Street), which was named after his play (and movie). I placed a rose on his plate.”
Coincidentally, “I was the assistant stage manager for the opening season of the Tennessee Williams Theater. It was called ‘Will Mr. Meriweather 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 on occasion at the theater with her “Libby in the Lobby” show with accomplished and much beloved local pianist Bobby Nesbitt. “I can’t wait to do that again!” she says.
In 1981, she met a guitarist, Franklin Micane, at the Pier House and “he invited me 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.” Over the years, she graced the Waldorf Astoria, the Metropolitan and the Kitano Hotel, as well as numerous small clubs. “I toured throughout Paris and performed at the Cafe Laurent.”
Libby 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,” she says. “I enjoy what I refer to as a ‘Listening Room.’” That would be a room without annoying distractions, for music lovers with discerning ears and tastes.
One such room is the lush outdoor area at the Gardens Hotel (526 Angela St.), where owner Kate Miano cultivates an under-the-radar music scene for true lovers of quality musical entertainment. Every Sunday, the Gardens hosts its Jazz in the Gardens series — a perfect venue for Libby to display her enchanting brand of intimate jazz. This season, Jazz at the Gardens will host this brilliant chanteuse on Jan. 14, Feb. 25, March 25 and April 8. The Gardens Hotel is a warm, upscale, intimate space, where the connoisseurs of fine wine and fine music regularly congregate. Generally, Libby is accompanied here by a lovely trio of musicians, including guitarist Tim McAlpine, bassist Joe Dallas and woodwind expert Mark Rose.
You can also catch her at the Little Room Jazz Club, 821 Duval St., starting Dec. 20 on Wednesdays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and at the Truman Little White House on a date that has yet to be announced. 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 at www.LibbyYork.com. She is easy to find on YouTube, as well.
Her newest record release, “Memoir,”a tribute to Rosemary Clooney, was named in the Top Ten by KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz and has garnered rave reviews. Her website is a compendium of enthusiastic praise of her albums and her overall style: “… 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. 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 ovations continue on from there.
Libby is already working on her next, as-yet unnamed project, which 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, “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 involving fascinating people, she says that, “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.’”
Libby says that she always has a never-ending list of about 20 songs she wants to do. “I love Jobim’s ‘This Happy Madness’,” she states, for example. For our ears’ sakes, may she never, ever run out of inspiration.
When asked why Key West has remained her hub after experiencing such a metropolitan lifestyle, she muses: “It’s the people. 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.” Then she adds, “You should 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 gotta swing.” And she does. ¦