Pittsburghers have contributed their fair share to the Great American Songbook — that canon of the most significant and enduring American popular songs from the 1920s to the 1950s, many of which were created for musical theater and film. Think Gene Kelley, Oscar Levant and Billy Strayhorn.
Michael Feinstein, who has been dubbed “the ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” has built a career spanning more than 30 years interpreting the tunes of those icons and others not only vocally, but also by chronicling the history of the music that continues to provide the soundtrack to our lives.
Feinstein and his Trio will perform as the kickoff act to the 30th annual concert lineup at MCG Jazz at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, Sept. 23 and 24.
“My shows are always a mixture of music and conversation,” Feinstein said in an interview, explaining that he typically delivers historical context and background to his audiences to enhance their appreciation of the music. “It’s one of the things I’ve always done. It brings a lot of joy, and it educates audiences without them feeling like they are being in a class. The history is important to me, and I want to share it.”
That passion for the music of the early to mid-20th century and its history is evinced by Feinstein’s robust efforts to preserve it, including his 2007 founding of the Great American Songbook Foundation, an organization dedicated to celebrating the art form and offering educational programs to ensure its endurance.
Feinstein was born in Columbus, Ohio, and started playing piano by ear when he was just 5 years old. He grew up listening to the music of the Great American Songbook and was enamored with it from the start.
“That was the music that played in our home when I was growing up,” he said. “It was all pervasive. That was the music that appealed to me. The music and the harmonies captivated me at an early age.”
At 20, Feinstein moved to Los Angeles, where he met the widow of concert pianist and actor Oscar Levant, who introduced him to Ira Gershwin in July 1977. That meeting led to Feinstein working as Gershwin’s assistant for six years and allowing him access to many unpublished Gershwin songs, several of which he has since performed and recorded.
Feinstein has appeared at the White House, Buckingham Palace, the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House and serves as artistic director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts, a three-theater venue in Carmel, Ind., which opened in January 2011.
Artists of Jewish heritage were prominent contributors to the Great American Songbook, Feinstein noted. Among them were Levant, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen.
“The profession of music publishing was one that was open to not only Jewish immigrants, but all immigrants in the late 1800s,” he said. “There were lots of ethnic songs coming out of Tin Pan Alley,” the name given to New York City music publishers and songwriters in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“Song pluggers used to go to synagogues and find singers in the choirs to go out to plug the music,” Feinstein continued. “And the songs themselves were from a nucleus of writers who were the children of immigrants from Europe and Russia who settled in New York. They were a microcosm of New York.”
The music of the Great American Songbook differs from the music of today, Feinstein said, both in the way in which it was typically enjoyed and in its composition.
“Music was something more communal [in the early to mid-20th century],” he said. “It was a live experience, and it brought people together in a way it doesn’t today.”
The music of today, Feinstein said, is less complex, as well as less rich. Recent academic research has shown, he noted, that the organized chord structure of most popular songs “are literally almost all alike.”
“In the Golden Age,” he said, “all the songs were different.”
Innovation predominated in the composition of the music of the Golden Age, while today, “innovation is the enemy of popular music.”
“Technology has replaced art,” Feinstein lamented. “Young people are educated in technology, and music has been devalued to nothing. Mainstream popular music is pretty grim.”
Feinstein is doing what he can, he said, to bring people to the music of the Golden Age.
“It’s one of the things that’s important to me,” he said. “I do what I can do perpetuate this music.”
Feinstein will perform four shows, two each night, at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. For more information or for tickets, go to mcgjazz.org, or call the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz Box Office at 412-322-0800.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.