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Michael Feinstein champions Great American Songbook

Michael Feinstewill celebrate GreAmerican Songbook with concert Auditorium Theatre Sept. 29. | GETTY IMAGES

Michael Feinstein will celebrate the Great American Songbook with a concert at the Auditorium Theatre on Sept. 29. | GETTY IMAGES

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♦ 7:30 p.m. Sept 29

♦ Auditorium Theatre,
50 E. Congress

♦ Tickets, $32-$92
♦ (800) 982-2787;

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:34AM

Mention the Great American Songbook, and invariably some of the names that come to mind are the icons: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, and more contemporary purveyors including Michael Buble, Rod Stewart and even Paul McCartney.

Dig just a little deeper, and the standard-bearer for this music genre has to be pianist-vocalist-music historian Michael Feinstein, who has devoted his life to sustaining one of America’s greatest art forms. Feinstein has spent decades performing the music of the standards legends — most notably the Gershwins, with whom he shares perhaps his closest bond. His love for the music — decades of standards from the 1920s through the 1960s — has led him beyond the performance stage and into the realm of cultural institutions with the establishment of the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, headquartered in Carmel, Ind. The organization is part of a three-theater performing arts center, research library, music archive and plans for a separate museum to house thousands of artifacts, memorabilia and sheet music culled from private and public collections (not to mention a garage sale or two).

Legendary songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin, to name a few, have their champion in Feinstein, who chose the heart of the Midwest for their place of enshrinement.

“I was approached by a number of people representing various cities, but when I met with the mayor of Carmel, and saw his passion for the Great American Songbook, I knew it would work,” Feinstein said. “They offered free office space, free exhibition space and a desire to build a museum in the next few years. In addition we’ll have annual songbook festivals and vocal competitions for the next generations of standards singers. It was a total commitment to culture.

“This music is about all of America, not just what came out of New York or Los Angeles. The songwriters and musicians and singers came from everywhere. Cole Porter came from Indiana. Jimmy Webb was from Oklahoma. Chicago’s greatest contribution to the songbook was the Chicago jazz sound, and the blues, which is seminal to our music history. So many great musicians and songwriters came out of Chicago’s South Side blues and jazz clubs. Choosing a Midwest site was ideal.”

Feinstein, dubbed the official “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” will perform along with Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra in concert Sept. 29 at the Auditorium Theatre. Feinstein said he is eager to continue to foster an appreciation for the standards.

“The music just tugs at your heart,” Feinstein said of this immense catalog of American music that has become his life’s work. “It’s not one specific era of music, but a certain style and aesthetic that transcended eras that makes it so wonderful and so vital. Much of the music of the 20th century was for the most part performed and recorded live. I listen to Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Judy Garland and it’s all live, the orchestra is live, and it’s perfect.”

“Now with all our wonderful technology — that I do adore — it just makes it harder for true, authentic sound to be heard in music. There is so much about production and other elements of the process these days that gets in the way of the music itself. Creating recordings live with all their complexities, to a certain extent, is already lost.”

In August, Feinstein was named the new lead conductor of the Pasadena Pops, replacing the legendary Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August.

“He was a great orchestrator, with such an unending passion for life,” Feinstein said of his late friend and occasional collaborator. “No one can ever accomplish what he did. A brilliant musician.”

In mid-October, Feinstein will publish The Gershwins and Me — A Personal History in Twelve Songs, his homage to his favorite Great American Songbook icons. Feinstein worked for Ira Gershwin for a period of time in the 1970s (until his death in 1983), cataloging and preserving the sheet music and rare recordings of the composer and his late brother, George, who died in 1937).

“It’s a book in 12 chapters, each on a different song from which I extrapolate different eras in their lives when they composed that particular song,” Feinstein said. “It’s a different way to tell all the marvelous anecdotes and stories about the Gershwins. It comes with a CD that I recorded of all 12 songs, such as “Strike Up the Band,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Feinstein said his one regret was never meeting George Gershwin. “George still remains a mystery to me,” Feinstein said. “He was clearly a complex man, and I don’t think anyone really knew him.”

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