Bringing on the hits
Musical couple explores the many iconic American songs that came from the Russian Jewish community
When your music is part jazz, part cabaret and part Broadway, and you get booked to play a Jewish community center, how do you choose a program theme?
For singer Wesla Whitfield and pianist Michael Greensill, the choice was obvious: the Russian Jewish influences on the Great American Songbook. The only problem, Whitfield said cheerfully, is that "we have way too much material."
Indeed. Last century, writers from Russian Jewish families played a pivotal role in shaping American pop music. Irving Berlin, to name one, comes up twice on NPR's top-100 list of the most significant American music of the 20th century ("Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "White Christmas"). He also made the number-five spot on the American Film Institute's top 100 movie songs of all time ("White Christmas" again).
And Berlin's cohorts were numerous: George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few.
For their concert in Palo Alto on July 15, Whitfield and Greensill are going through their cornucopia of songs by these composers and lyricists. As of last week they still hadn't narrowed down their list of songs to a manageable program.
Whitfield and Greensill, longtime San Francisco performers (and spouses) who recently moved to Napa County, have been researching the roots of these icons.
"I was curious what they were listening to. What sort of music did they hear from their parents and grandparents in Russia that translated into what became popular song over here?" Greensill said.
He imagines the composers heard a mix of Jewish cantorial singing, with its many minor keys; and classical music including works by Tschaikovsky. "It's a very melodic era of classical music," Greensill said. "When you think of all the themes of 'The Nutcracker,' they're almost like popular songs."
Whitfield said many of the composers began writing songs to make a living. Berlin, for example, worked at a restaurant. When he saw that a song about another restaurant was popular, he decided to pen one about his own workplace, Whitfield said. "He was a great marketing guy and remained so all his life."
Another common thread that runs through the standards from the Great American Songbook is their versatility, Greensill said. "These songs are incredibly malleable. You can do them slow, fast, Latin; stretch them out, scrunch them up. You can do anything to make them your own."
For decades, Whitfield and Greensill have been putting their own stamp on the songs they love together. They met in the early '80s when Whitfield, who had been singing in San Francisco since 1968, was seeking a new pianist. "I became her arranger and piano player," Greensill said. "One thing led to another."
Greensill is a seasoned jazz musician who has taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and performs regularly with his trio. Whitfield's niche is harder to pin down, which is how she likes it. She's a classically trained soprano equally comfortable with movie songs, show tunes and jazz, and has sung with the San Francisco Symphony and on "A Prairie Home Companion."
"We like to think of her as a song stylist," Greensill says.
Greensill likens his partnership with Whitfield to the marriage of jazz and American popular song. "It's jazz that's kept those songs alive," he says. A Cole Porter song, for instance, may now be less known for the Broadway show it was originally written for, and more famed for the way Ella Fitzgerald later sang it.
Meanwhile, Greensill says Whitfield has given him more appreciation for the lyrics and stories behind songs, while he's brought her "a swinging sensibility."
Whitfield agrees the partnership isn't bad. "The first 30 years have been OK," she said, laughing.
Whitfield, who was left paralyzed from the waist down by a 1977 random shooting, performs sometimes from her wheelchair and sometimes from a stool to which her husband matter-of-factly carries her. The wheelchair doesn't get mentioned much in reviews anymore. In her many positive write-ups, critics seem more interested in her skilled interpretations of the songs she loves.
In a review of a 2009 concert, San Francisco Chronicle writer David Wiegand praised "the Whitfield magic": precise phrasing; a clear, lovely voice; and the artist's understanding that "good singing is also good storytelling."
Visitors to Whitfield's website, weslawhitfield.com, can see for themselves by watching a 2011 video of her take on the Alan Block-Donn Hecht tune "Walkin' After Midnight." Whitfield's version of the song made famous by Patsy Cline is wistful yet knowing. She is always in control of her instrument, singing with a confidence that needs no ornamentation.
During an interview with the Weekly, Whitfield's gentle speaking voice lights up when she's asked how she approaches new songs.
"I look at the printed music and see what the composer had in mind. From that I get clues of how it really should be phrased," she said. "I look at where he put his punctuation and try to figure out what he wanted to be saying."
Above all, Whitfield makes her choices in interpreting a song with great care and respect for the original intent. "There's always more than one way to interpret that semicolon. The most important thing you can do is think about it."
What: Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill perform the concert "From Shtetl to Broadway: The Russian Jewish Influence on the Great American Songbook."
Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Sunday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Advance tickets are $30 general, $25 for JCC members and $23 for residents of the center's Moldaw Family Residence. Tickets at the door are $35.
Info: Go to www.paloaltojcc.org .