Coffee with Marilyn Maye

Coffee with Marilyn Maye

Maye performs at Dizzy’s in New York City

Marilyn Maye continues to be in high demand as a singer at 95 years young. She shares her decades of wisdom as a performing artist with CS readers. 

I was well into my 30s when I finally met a mentor who changed my career, and then my life. That mentor was none other than Marilyn Maye, the legendary jazz and cabaret singer—who, at 95, became the hottest gig in New York, selling out her debut performance at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium this past March. For decades, she has sold out annual multiple-night runs at 54 Below, Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center, and Birdland. 

Maye taught me so much about performing, but it all boils down to this: “Your focus must include the audience, not just the voice.”  

What is your top advice for young singers, singers still training or just starting their careers? 

If you’re talented and willing to work, it brings great joy, with many ups and a lot of downs. It takes great dedication—more than eight hours a day. Yes, it’s fun, but you have to love what you do—love your process and your audience.  

Did you ever imagine doing anything else?

Never! I always joke that I can’t cook. 

What was your most valuable experience as a young singer? 

I don’t think there was only one experience. When I was 9, I began entering amateur contests, which I often won. My mother, a very good musician, played piano for me. In my teens, I was hired to do my own radio show called “Marilyn Entertains” at KRNT in Des Moines. I also sang in a nightclub with a band on Saturday nights. This was during my high school days. It helped pay the bills for Mother and me.

When I was 19, I was hired by WHAS radio in Louisville. Each week, I had two 30-minute shows and an hour-long show on Friday with an orchestra—including a string section. Imagine that on radio! It was great training for what came later on. 

When the radio station adopted a country-only format, I was asked to stay. But I didn’t want to sing country. That was probably a dumb decision. Who knows? But I wanted to sing jazz, Broadway, and popular music of the time: Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart. 

In my 20s, I moved to Chicago where there were many theatrical agents. I put together an act, and the agents booked me in various clubs throughout the Midwest. I had no manager, but the local booking agents and good reviews kept me working. 

Martina Arroyo and Marilyn Maye

What do you consider your biggest breaks? 

Steve Allen [the cofounder and host of The Tonight Show, as well as prolific composer, comedian, and radio star] was a big break, maybe the biggest. From The Steve Allen Show came a three-year recording contract with RCA. Seven albums, 34 singles, and many other breaks—including 76 appearances on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was hosting—and numerous appearances on the Mike Douglas Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. I began headlining at the most prestigious hotel showrooms and nightclubs in Vegas and throughout the country. Other than the TV shows, we don’t have that anymore.

You are always working. Do you take breaks? 

Well, yes, forced breaks—if I’m not booked! However, during those times, I’m really busy. Many years ago, people convinced me to teach, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn so much by teaching. Students will ask me, “How do you do that?” and then I have to stop and think, “How do I do what I do?” You have to dissect it. By directing it, you learn to explain it. 

One of the most important things you taught me is how to phrase a musical line. How would you define phrasing? 

Conversation is what you’re singing. It’s a conversation. A story. Songs are written in meter, but don’t think of lyrics as meter. When you talk, do you hesitate or do you forge ahead? Find the real meaning of the sentence. Take your breath and pause to separate the lyrics. There may be three separate points that need to be made in that sentence. 

It has to do with understanding the phrasing, the combination of words and then and having a pianist that really understands rubato.

Where did you learn phrasing? 

By giving attention to the words of the song, I hear some people singing, and they are making beautiful sounds but they don’t deliver the meaning of the lyric. I hear people sing, “I love you” and it doesn’t convey the emotion or the meaning of the phrase. Obviously those three words are really important. It should sound like you really mean “I love you.” 

When we’re working together, you always say “loud and soft” in terms of phrasing a lyric. As an opera singer, I was trained to sing everything legato, beautiful, and usually loud. But we didn’t work specifically on the dynamics within a word or a few words. Why is this so important? 

You should really decipher the story you are telling. Do you scream, “I love you” or do you say it sweetly and softly? It all depends on what you’re delivering. There again, the phrasing is difficult to verbally describe. 

I agree, it’s one of the hardest things to teach.

Sometimes, the people you’re teaching and/or working with will hear a song and try, consciously or unconsciously, to copy the person who recorded it. You should avoid that at all costs. Even if and when you are doing a tribute to a famous artist, you have to make their songs your own. You are giving your take on these songs and stories. That’s what makes you interesting and unique as a performer and what makes audiences see you as an entertainer in your own right, someone they want to see performing over and over. 

Marilyn Maye and Minda Larsen

As an opera singer I had a hard time with phrasing. Why didn’t I know how to do it by age 35?

Were you allowed to phrase? Or were you told, “Don’t change the value of the notes or the written word?” I was honored by the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation in 2010 with a Lifetime Achievement Award. When I asked why [an organization for opera singing would give a lifetime achievement award to a jazz singer], they said: “You do what we now want our singers to do, connect with the audience.”

I feel we need more of that in opera! Moving on to other aspects of performance, how do you make your arms and hands look so natural? 

It’s difficult to teach gestures and make it “look” natural and not contrived. 

[Clenches fist.] Not pretty. It displays inner tension. [Softens hands and fingers.] Pretty!

Sometimes, singers grasp the mic during their complete act. Hand and arm gestures can help you convey the meaning of the lyrics and serve the larger story. That’s why some dance (ballet) lessons can be helpful—not to be a dancer, but to feel comfortable and graceful onstage. That makes you a better storyteller.

How important is what you wear on stage? 

Everything. It’s showtime for the eyes as well as the ears. 

I know you have a very special relationship with the microphone. What should singers know about working with a mic? Especially singers who are used to singing with only their voice over an orchestra. 

Learn mic technique! Learn it from people who know how to use a microphone. It’s so important. 

Do you understand how to talk technically and musically to the musicians of your band? Is this important for a singer to learn? 

I do and it is important. It comes from experience. 

I know you have a few pet peeves. One, that I used to do all the time, is touch/finesse my hair onstage. Why is this a no-no? 

Why are you playing with your hair on stage? Does it help you make a point in the song? Everything you do on stage has to serve the song, the lyric, the story of your performance. 

Why do you always tell singers to not close their eyes? 

When we are speaking and sharing stories verbally with someone in real life, we don’t close our eyes. I believe the American Idol performers do it out of fear, or because they think it’s dramatic or it conveys intense feelings. But who am I to argue? They’re on national television. But quite often my audience members tell me they think I’m singing directly to them. Or an audience member will come up to me after a show and say, “I had a bad day today and I’m so glad I came tonight…I feel so much better!”   

I also believe strongly that you should respect the people who come to see/hear you. We should acknowledge and honor their presence. That’s our job! We should bring joy into the lives of the people who come to see and hear us. It’s not a contest. It’s our job, our mission to make them happy. It’s called entertainment! 

Minda Larsen

Minda Larsen is a classically trained singer, actor, and voice teacher in New York City. She’s sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, traveled to over 80 countries performing her original cabaret shows, and acted recently on Gotham (FOX), The Deuce (HBO), and FBI (CBS). Larsen’s students have appeared in numerous Broadway shows and national tours. Larsen earned her MM at the Manhattan School of Music. Visit @mindalarsen on Instagram.