Don't Shoot This Piano Player: Bobby Short Is the Debonair King of Supper Clubs
I try to have people over who are congenial and interesting. God knows, I’ve put up with enough dreary parties where I’ve not known a single soul. I hate to do that to people. It’s such a bore.”
Bored? Bobby Short bored? What man is more the natural enemy of “the old ennui”? In his temple of the night, Manhattan’s Café Carlyle, Short is sophistication incarnate, enthralling Beautiful Patrons like the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie O. They elbow into the banquettes for dinner and postprandial drinks while Bobby sings and revives on his grand piano some of the wittiest show tunes by the likes of Cole Porter, Noël Coward and the Gershwins. An evening with Short, The New Yorker’s jazz critic says, is “the most intimate and delicate form of live entertainment extant.”
Bobby himself might have stepped out of a Cole Porter lyric, with his stylish Savile Row dinner jacket, jaunty boutonniere and boulevardier’s passion for fine champagnes. He lives his repertoire, but which song is quintessential Short? I Happen to Like New York, where he has an airy apartment near Carnegie Hall filled with a rain forest of tropical plants? Or That Black and White Baby of Mine, the song whose title Short used for his bittersweet memoirs about his life as a “colored” (the word he prefers) performer in white society?
“I am a Negro who has never lived in the South,” explains Short, 51. “Nor was I ever trapped in an urban ghetto.” Instead, Short grew up in a middle-class family in the largely white Corn Belt town of Danville, Ill. He taught himself jazz piano on his mother’s upright and began playing at country club parties and in local saloons. At 11, he was sent on the road by two agents who dressed him in white tails and billed him as “The Miniature King of Swing” from Kansas City to Harlem. Bobby met jazz greats like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, but when his own career as a musical prodigy fizzled he returned to Danville. There he happily settled for the presidency of the high school boys’ glee club and graduated a year before schoolmate Dick Van Dyke.
Then Short hit the road again, drifting through boîtes in Los Angeles and Paris before settling in at the Carlyle’s 120-seat supper club nine years ago. There he and two collaborators on bass and drums pack in the faithful for two or three sets a night, eight months a year, a pace, Short groans, that leaves him “totally exhausted.” One consolation is a yearly tour that frees him from the distracting rattle of spoons and plates at the Carlyle to play in concert halls. His albums (like Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers & Hart) sell steadily, though more people will hear his current TV commercial for Revlon’s Charlie cologne than have bought his eight LPs combined.
“I suppose that, for whatever it’s worth, I’m successful,” Short muses. A bachelor, he still plays at occasional private soirees, but at a deliberately extortionate rate that leaves him time to see friends. “The Beautiful People?” he asks. “I’ve never for one second deluded myself I’m one of them. I have my own life to lead. My only position in high society is what I can offer. I can do something most people can’t do.”
Short’s biggest worry now is that he’ll become “a singing Smithsonian” whose voice will age with his material. “Everyone’s vocal equipment deteriorates after a while,” he observes. “How much longer can I sing? What will happen when I feel like retiring? I don’t have 10,000 shares of IBM.”
Of course, the 10,000 songs Short can play may be capital enough. This spring he lectured at Harvard on “a subject I know something about,” the American popular song. Since Yale claims Cole Porter as an alumnus, what better idea than for its archrival in Cambridge to honor the composer’s foremost interpreter? Every night in the Carlyle there must be a dozen guests with bucks enough to endow a musical chair for Professor Short.