There’s no denying Michael Feinstein’s role as an entertainer.
The singer-pianist has played Buckingham Palace to the Hollywood Bowl, been nominated five times for a Grammy Award and collaborated with the biggest singers, composers and conductors of music and Broadway for the last 30 years.
But the 61-year-old is also a historian.
He was Ira Gershwin’s assistant for six years. In 2007, Feinstein founded the Great American Songbook Foundation and he serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board.
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Feinstein brings his talents and his voluminous musical knowledge to the Pantages Theater on Feb. 23 in “Celebrating the Crooners.”
The News Tribune interviewed him earlier this month.
Q: What will we hear when you’re in Tacoma in a few weeks?
A: The Great American Songbook, great classic songs that have stood the test of time that have been recorded by everybody from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart to Linda Ronstadt to contemporary artists, Lady Gaga. They are songs that are the bedrock of American music. This particular show will be celebrating the crooners — a more intimate style of singing that was really championed by Bing Crosby. I suppose it’s because Crosby was from Spokane that I decided to use them in these shows in Washington.
Q: Crosby grew up in Spokane but he was born in Tacoma.
A: I didn’t know that.
Q: When you perform a song, what are we hearing — in terms of research, stylistic decisions, influences?
A: A hell of a lot of good entertainment first and foremost. The rest of the stuff is kind of encoded in the DNA of what I do. The songs are organic for me. I’ve known them since I was very young and have indeed studied them. So, I would say my interpretations are authentic but they are not frozen in time. The way we listen to and perform these songs now is quite different from the way they were heard in the 1920s and the 1930s. The songs change with the times. You can put a hip hop beat under something, you can do it as a ballad. I always try to bring through the sense of what the writers tried to accomplish.
Q: Do you provide context?
A: I suppose the historical part of my personality comes through in the way I talk about the song. If somebody doesn’t know the songs, it’s an introduction to them. There’s a lot of light-hearted anecdotes and a lot of humor. And the shows are interactive with the audience because I want for people who are hearing this music for the first time to embrace it and have it become a permanent part of their repertoire.
Q: To be clear, you are not in any way doing impressions of Sinatra, Martin, Davis, etc.?
A: I don’t do impressions. I can, but it’s not what I get paid for. It’s about the music. I have a very talented jazz trio with me. It’s a celebration of storytelling and the wit and the humor of these songs. The songs are timeless. “Over the Rainbow” has as much resonance today as it did when it was written in 1939. Or “The Way You Look Tonight” or “Love is hear to stay.” Those are songs that resonate with people because the emotions they explore never change. And the wit of Cole Porter is still funny, still brilliant.
Q: How much did Ira Gershwin influence you? Would you be where you are today without him?
A: The Gershwin songs were a tremendous influence even before I met Mr. Gershwin. But the trajectory (if he hadn’t met Gershwin) … I might have become an archivist, because I love spending my time going through stacks of recordings and music, I might have become a radio DJ.
Q: You came of age in the era of The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, The Beatles and so many others.
A: I heard all that music because my brother and sister played it. It was ubiquitous. And I appreciated it. But it wasn’t what I was emulating.
Q: What’s your relationship with contemporary music today?
A: It knows where to find me.
Q: So many of these songs, particularly Gershwin, seem like the soundtrack to America itself.
A: It’s a unique American art form. There are no other popular songs of any country that have had the influence these popular songs of our country have had. In some ways this music is the greatest export this country has ever created.
Q: I understand philanthropist Bren Simon, the widow of real estate baron Mel Simon (owner of Tacoma Mall), has gifted her 107-acre Asherwood estate in Carmel, Indiana, to the Songbook Foundation. Could that be the eventual home of your foundation?
A: I envision it as the perfect place for the museum. It can house all the artifacts we have. It can also be a place for screening films, and performances and galas. It’s an amazing building. It has a great hall, and a screening room, guest houses, it has everything.
What: “Celebrating the Crooners – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby & Others”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23.
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Tickets: $39, $59, $79, $95