Note to Omaha jazz fans, especially the young ones: Come hear Marilyn Maye today. All female jazz singers who follow her to town will merely be ≠pretenders.
Far too many empty seats greeted Maye, 85, Saturday night for her first of two performances with the Omaha Symphony at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Capacity crowds of diverse ages have greeted other jazz performers there, with or without the symphony. So, for the uninitiated, here are several reasons why today's 2 p.m. finale ought to become a must-see event:
1. She's one of the last of the greats. Saturday night's audience testified to that by giving Maye a standing ovation the moment she walked onto the stage. She's been singing in nightclubs for nearly 60 years. She's starred in Broadway shows. And she had Johnny Carson's open invitation to sing on “The Tonight Show” whenever she could — a right she exercised no fewer than 76 times.
2. She's one of us. Maye was born in Wichita, Kan., grew up in Des Moines and got her big break when “Tonight” founder Steve Allen heard her at The Colony nightclub in Kansas City, Mo. She sang numerous times at Peony Park and other Omaha venues. And in July, Maye sang at The Inn at Lake Okoboji in Iowa — for the 57th consecutive year.
3. Most important, you won't believe how Maye sings and woos a crowd at 85 as though she's 30 years younger. At least.
She seized the audience's attention right away with a lusty rendition of “It's Today,” which she sang on Broadway playing the title role in Jerry Herman's “Mame.” Two hours later, Maye returned to the song's chorus as her last word on the evening. Her voice and stage presence were as clear and strong as they were when she first stepped on stage.
Since she's an alto, Maye admittedly has an advantage in preserving the range and quality of her voice. But she repeatedly proved that she can hit high notes well. Her diction truly was impeccable, particularly on the fast-≠moving vocalese and scat lyrics of the Paul Desmond-Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five.” Most notably, her breathing was so refined as to be all but un≠noticeable.
Maye's long years of cabaret-≠style performing were evident throughout the show. While launching a medley of “happy” songs with the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler classic “Get Happy,” she signaled both the crowd and the orchestra to shout “Hallelujah!” A bit later, she sang a lilting “oh, so-oh-oh peaceful,” then declared: “That's my favorite part of the whole song. Let's do it again.”
Then there was her ongoing repartee with Music Director Thomas Wilkins, who signaled what was coming early on when he breathlessly declared: “Marilyn kissed me. On the lips, baby! So, baby — my wife is up there somewhere — I don't want it to come off.”
Wilkins, who chose a ≠Gershwin overture and a suite from Lerner & Loewe's “Gigi” to open the show, began the second act by leading the symphony through Cole Porter's “Begin the Beguine.” When Maye came out, she declared: “I love the ending! How about you play that again?”
“I just love working with these difficult types,” Wilkins “muttered” in a stage whisper as the crowd laughed. “You think they'll just sing a few songs! ... OK, (measure) 79!” When the symphony finished “Beguine” the second time, he tossed the score at Maye in mock disgust.
Maye's song selections epitomized a life of joy and satisfaction. But her most fitting number was the one that closed the first act: Stephen Sondheim's “I'm Still Here.” Here's hoping Omaha sends her off in style today.