Not every day affords the opportunity to listen to a living legend.
I was waiting to put a call into Marilyn Maye after making contact with Helen, her assistant, and browsing through a bunch of complimentary clippings about her recent stint of shows for Feinstein‘s at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City.
In the Big Apple Ms. Maye is undergoing a bit of a career renaissance and drawing some of the most influential and prized crowds in all of the world. But career success is nothing new for Marilyn Maye. By now we all know her resume: A record 72 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, collaborations with some of the greatest names in American Music and a catalog of hits and performances that span the modern era.
But in this town, the name Marilyn Maye is about more than just music.
Kansas City clings to the legacy of Marilyn Maye as a linchpin to a long-ago era when this metropolis was at the center of American culture. For so many, the enduring greatness of Ms. Maye’s singing and performances represent a reflection of Kansas City’s influential role in creating the American Empire.
Put it in context, Kansas City started as little more than a nice place to pause for more ambitious westward bound people.
The town grew with the railroads and stockyards. We earned respect by leading the way in the early part of the 20th Century with urban violence and a deep connection to national politics in Washington D.C. that powered the bloodiest period of human history the Planet Earth has ever experienced.
But after the Second World War, past the 50s baby boom and into hope of the early 60s – Marilyn Maye’s career began at a point when American confidence was at an all time high. The U.S. had yet to be embarrassed by a group of jungle fighters in Southeast Asia. Segregation was fact of life and was rarely disputed in polite society here in the Midwest. Kansas City was thought of as a cleaner yet still urbane place on par with Chicago.
Life was, reasonably, good.
More than anything, Marilyn Maye’s legacy captures that moment in time when Kansas City had as much cultural significance as it would ever attain.
But maybe I’m being too pessimistic.
I’ve seen Ms. Maye perform once before at Jardine’s where she’ll embark on a series of Kansas City shows starting on June 14th and concluding Father’s Day June 19th.
My first thought after seeing a Marilyn Maye show last year is that it was possibly one of the most inspiring performances I’ve witnessed in my life. Ms. Maye merges Jazz and Cabaret melodies with an unbelievable energy that most performers struggle to attain.
Quick chats with the crowd are punctuated by an effervescent humor that’s just a bit racy and completely authentic.
In her recent string of New York City performances she put together medleys of more than 30 songs that included classics and her hits. In the performance I witnessed last year, Marilyn Maye displayed a stunning musical virtuosity while belting out American standards that were nothing less than epic. A Marilyn Maye performance conjures up the very best American Popular Music ever had to offer and reminds us of a time when the world listened intently to the songs people were singing.
Obviously, the skill with which Ms. Maye performs was honed over an lifelong dedication to her craft. On the subject of her legacy, Ms. Maye was quick to remind me. "I’ve been performing consistently for all of my life," she said. "We’ve played non-stop for years in Kansas City, throughout the Midwest and in front of a variety of audiences."
Ms. Maye is accompanied by a supporting cast of musicians who measure their time spent with the American icon in decades.
My repeated questions about her legacy seemed to make Ms. Maye uncomfortable. She obviously doesn’t spend much time thinking about it and instead seems to be focused on her upcoming shows.
"The people in Kansas City will see the same kind of show we perform in New York. I feel lucky that audiences in KC are equally sophisticated," Ms. Maye said.
Yet, as upbeat as I’d like to be about Marilyn Maye and her legacy. In the final analysis, what makes her shows so captivating to me is that they really do represent the voice of a bygone era.
And nothing lasts forever.
Accordingly, my favorite part of my brief chat with Ms. Maye was the point where she offered just a bit of personal insight into her public life.
"I’ve had many loves and marriages and in the end, the only thing that has ever worked out for me has been music," Marilyn Maye said.
It might have been a line from her act, I didn’t care.
The power of a Marilyn Maye performance is her ability to transcend the petty reality of everyday life with a force of will that delivers musical excellence in classic American fashion. She won’t be around forever, none of us will; nevertheless, at Jardine’s next week, expect a great many people to flock to her show as she brings her musical legacy back home to Kansas City.