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Rhapsody in Gershwin
Talking with SMF cabaret headliner Kevin Cole

Savannah Music Festival organizers like to plug a cabaret show into the last week of the event, something that settles in for a little residency at the Charles H. Morris Center. The times are staggered daily so that everyone who might want to will find a way to attend.

Between Monday and Wednesday, April 2-4, there are six performances of "Here to Stay - the Gershwin Experience," a multi-media cabaret show celebrating the music and the cultural legacy of George Gershwin, the chief author of the Great American Songbook.

The program's center of attention is pianist Kevin Cole, a well-known concert pianist who's played with the world's greatest orchestras.

"When Cole sits down at the piano," raved the Chicago Tribune, "you would swear Gershwin himself was at work ...Cole stands as the best Gershwin pianist in America today."

For "Here to Stay," Cole is joined by vocalist Sylvia McNair and choreographer/tap dancer Ryan VanDenBoom.

Are you one of those guys who wishes he'd been born in a different era - the ‘20s and ‘30s, when Gershwin was alive?

Kevin Cole: If I could have a time machine and go back, the only reason would be just to hear these people first hand - the performers, the artists, to be able to speak to them directly. Luckily, with the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, there are lots of recordings, so you get it second-hand. I think it's OK for me to kind of lead the cause for keeping this music alive, and I'm not the only one, but in performing this music in the world of today, I think the best we can do is try to capture the energy and drive and excitement and romance, because it's all there, and re-create that first through the music. But then try to find a connection to the contemporary audience, whether they have some sort of nostalgic feeling for the music, or are hearing it for the first time. Who are you playing to - those who already love you before they hear a note? Or those who are waiting to be wooed?

That speaks to its timelessness, doesn't it?

Kevin Cole: Absolutely. And Gershwin, since he was a pianist, and an excellent pianist, it makes it a little more challenging. Because he had two lives. He had his performing life, where he was the best promoter of his works, but he also had the songwriting life. Mostly with his brother Ira. And even though society and a lot of the critics at the time wanted him to choose one or the other, and just excel at one or the other, he said "forget that. Music's music, and if I feel like writing something for the concert hall one day, and writing a pop song the next, I'm gonna do it." I think by doing that, he showed that American music had a place and covers a lot more territory, and it shouldn't have to compete with established music from centuries ago. He wasn't schooled in Europe, he didn't do this, he didn't do that, he was this brash young American. So in Gershwin's music, and in those lyrics, there's a freshness that still speaks - it's like capturing something in amber. It will stay that way, and it's just up to us to tap into these universal feelings.

You're a relatively young guy. Why do you think this particular era in music captivated you?

Kevin Cole: I started taking formal piano lessons at age 4. It was a combination of my parents' record collection, and also the exposure to musicals, be they live or movies, that told me that there's another type of music besides classical music, which I love and did love as a kid. The big lightbulb moment for me, at age 7, was when I saw the film Rhapsody in Blue, which is a bio-pic about Gershwin. Now, the story isn't quite right - I didn't know that at age 7 - but the most important thing about seeing that film was getting such a huge lightning bolt of Gershwin. That led to me going to the library in Bay City, Michigan with my mom and asking for any books on Gershwin. The librarian handed me one called The Gershwin Years. And she said "One of the authors, Edward Jablonski, is from here, from Bay City.' That got me all jazzed up, to think that somebody who wrote a book about Gershwin was from my hometown.

Did you ever meet the author?

Kevin Cole: Eight years later, when I was 15, I made my first rip to Manhattan. I pulled out the Manhattan phone book, I looked up the name Jablonski - I hoped it was the right one - and I told him "I'm Kevin Cole, I'm from Bay City, Michigan. I play the piano, and I love the music of Gershwin." I heard a chuckle on the other end of the phone, and over a 10-minute conversation he and his wife invited me over the next day for supper. They had a little Spinet piano, and after I played a little Gershwin medley, and I think the first Prelude, he made the statement that changed my life: He said "Has anyone ever told you that when you play, you sound like Gershwin?" I said no, because I'd never herd Gershwin play! I'd heard Oscar LeVant, and Peter Nero, every pianist under the sun. But he put on recordings of Gershwin playing, and it just clicked. And through Jablonski, I got to play for so many of the composers who were in their later years at that time, like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Burton Lane and Yip Harburg. People who knew George Gershwin. And they said they loved the way I played their music as well.

Tell me about Here to Stay - The Gershwin Experience.

Kevin Cole: I was approached by the Gershwin Estate to create a concert program where I could incorporate film footage. There isn't a lot, but there are home movies, plus some live performance footage. And family photos. It's like going through the family scrapbook. So we have that projected on the screen above me as I tell some of the story. woven in between these great songs. But so many of the songs were written for great women performers, so I decided we needed a woman singer. Sylvia is a fantastic interpreter of the American Songbook; we've been working together for about seven years. And then it struck me, we also need dance, because of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's strong connection to the Gershwin legacy. Ryan is 22, and he just graduated from the musical theater program at NYU. And he's also from Bay City! He's just got this gift for choreography, for dance. He creates choreography that looks like it came from the films of that era.


Savannah Music Festival

Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience

Where: Charles H. Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St.

April 2: 5 and 7:30 p.m.

April 3: 12:30 and 3 p.m.

April 4: 5 and 7:30 p.m.