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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Jam Tales: Marilyn Maye

I’ve been onstage with Marilyn Maye only twice. 3 times if you count a promotional photoshoot.

Marilyn Maye (born April 10, 1928) is an American jazz singer, cabaret singer, and musical theater actress. She began her career as a young child, performing in Kansas in concerts and on the radio. After graduating from high school, she moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she drew the attention of Steve Allen, performing first on The Steve Allen Show and then The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She is the most frequently heard singer on that program, having appeared 76 times. ~Wikipedia

The first time I wound up onstage with her was at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harling's.

The second time was at BBs in Kansas City. The event was a Memorial Jam for another singer who was a friend of Marilyn's.

I was in the host band and so played with everyone who sat in, including Marilyn. She did a short set that included her version of Take Five. To say it was "peppy" is an understatement - the tempo was challenging. Her vocalese was amazing. Enunciation, breath control, pitch and scatting were dead-on. She's incredible. Oh yeah, it was in G minor instead of Eb minor. Nothing like transposing on the fly.

Marilyn and me

Anyway, during one song, I can't remember the tune, she was trying to cue the drummer (who shall remain nameless) to slow it down a little. Now this guy is an awesome drummer; one of the best I've ever played with, but he was not paying attention.

After several missed cues, Marilyn stopped the song and said, over the mic and in front of the crowd,

"Well, I can never do that song again, it's been ruined for me forever!"

Then she called the next tune.

"Holy crap!" I thought to myself, "That was brutal! I'm going to play it safe, not take chances and keep my head down!"

At least she didn't say anything directly to the drummer or call him out in front of the crowd; she didn't even look at him. Very few people in the audience knew what had happened.

She is a consummate, experienced pro who's used to working with top-tier guys, I get it. In that league, you don't miss cues, ever.

But still, stopping the tune in the middle and drawing the audience’s attention to a problem onstage seemed a little out of line. But what do I know? She's the one with the rep. Way more than me, for sure. I’ve been on the Tonight Show not even once.

Lest this story give you a skewed picture, I've had very positive and warm interactions and conversations with her, she's a wonderful person, full of experiences with and stories of some of the biggest names in the business, and she's still going strong at 93 years old!

In a bizarre coincidence - or more likely algorithms tracking my every move, as I write this, I just saw an ad:

Crooners Supper Club is in Minneapolis. Marilyn is based out of New York. She’s on the road, 5 shows in 4 nights at 93 years old! That’s remarkable.

She's one of the many Kansas City jazzers who've attained international prominence over the years. She figured prominently in the documentary film, Kansas City Jazz and Blues; Past, Present & Future.

The photoshoot I mentioned previously was for a magazine article to promote that film (I was also in the film and one of my recordings was used in the soundtrack). I spent a couple of hours on that shoot talking with her, it was a fascinating and interesting conversation.

Myself, filmmaker Sue Vicory, drummer Leon Brady and Marilyn Maye.

There’s a scene in the wonderful film, That Thing You Do where this band from a nowhere town winds up on the stage of a big time TV show and right before the curtain goes up revealing an audience of screaming fans, the guitarist turns to the drummer in wonder and disbelief and says,

“How did we get here?”

That‘s the way I felt being onstage with Marilyn Maye.

Marilyn Maye at Feinstein's 54 Below in New York, April 6, 2022.

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