Good news! The Great American Songbook is alive and well. Long live the prince!
Think of Over the Rainbow, Harold Arlen; White Christmas, Irving Berlin; Singin’ in the Rain, Nacio Herb Brown; Georgia on My Mind, Hoagy Carmichael.
Think of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Satin Doll (with Billy Strayhorn), “Mood Indigo”, “Sophisticated Lady”, “Take the ‘A’ Train”, etc.
Think of George and Ira Gershwin’s, I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away from Me. …of Rodgers and Hammerstein It Might as Well Be Spring, If I Loved You, Happy Talk, Some Enchanted Evening…..
And of course, the King of the American Standards, Cole Porter’s, Night and Day, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Begin the Beguine, Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Too Darn Hot, Love for Sale, You’re the Top, etc.
Now, think of the very prince in question, Cole Rumbough. He is the other Cole as in Cole Porter. Cole seems, by temperament, countenance, bearing, mannerism, sympathies, tailor-made for the Great American Songbook.
Influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Vic Damone, and Mel Torme, Cole Rumbough brings timeless elegance, romance and youthful sophistication to every note he croons. Born into a classical music background, Cole sang in his church and school choirs, where he grew up in Greenwich, CT. In his high school years, Cole regularly sang in choral concert tours throughout Europe in prestigious venues such as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, St Mark’s basilica in Venice, and St Peter’s basilica at The Vatican. Since Cole discovered jazz as a teenager, he has sung in various venues in the Hamptons with a local jazz duo, as well as private events at the “21” Club, Birdland Jazz Club, and La Grenouille restaurant with society bandleader, Peter Duchin. In August of 2012, Cole was a winner of the Jazz Arts Forum Vocal competition and performed in the Dobbs Ferry Jazz Festival.
It is indeed a miracle of sort that in the age of increasingly commercialized hip-hop, corny rock-and-roll, over-cooked and saccharine pop music, that we are blessed with the young, princely, Cole Rumbough.
This prince, as it were, this great-grandson of Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post and grandson of Dina Merrill, is a beacon of hope to a well polished, well made, finely wrought, uniquely American music genre that has considerably ebbed in popularity over the years.
Cole Porter is dead, long live Cole Rumbough! And long live The Great American Songbook!
I’m struck by your musical taste and practice. Why classic American pop standards in the age of hip-hop, pop music, etc.?
Because the American Popular Songbook is timeless. I think most children tend to like what they are exposed to growing up—whatever their parents and grandparents listen to, until they go to school and are influenced by the other kids and social pressure. I grew up with Classical music and Jazz, but unlike other kids, I had rejected everything else that didn’t have a certain romantic musical quality I had grown to love.
So, in your own case, your musical taste is largely a result of your upbringing. Had you been brought up or socialized differently do you think things would have been different?
Perhaps it would have been a bit different. I like to think that who I am is who I am regardless of my influences, meaning that the core of my personality that decides my likes and dislikes is preordained, although influences certainly play a major role in shaping me and my interests. But the foundation is there, and it’s just a matter of timing, when I’m exposed to the thing that resonates with me most. I think if I had been brought up listening to country music or rock and roll, I would definitely have more of an appreciation for them. And maybe down the road, I will. In this day and age, with technology and globalization, everyone is so easily exposed and connected to everything that we can pick and choose. It’s wonderful! Most times I ask another person my age what type of music they like, they answer “a little bit of everything.” And when I ask if they have a favorite, they can’t say. But I have always known my favorite and I think such a strong passion for something must come from DNA or a sense of familiarity from a past life or something. After exposure to many things, nothing resonates with me more than Jazz does and I can’t imagine my life without Ella Fitzgerald or Sinatra.
Is there perhaps an implicit or explicit protest on your part to embrace this genre of music?
There sure is! Yes to both implicit and explicit. I have always felt as if I had been born into the wrong era. I love all the styles of the first half of the 20th century—in music, fashion, film, cars.
I think everything was more attractive, more elegant and innocent back then.
Now, we’re not religious but my mother then felt the need to teach me the Serenity Prayer. Its the one that says “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So from that point on, I decided to march to the beat of my own drum and completely ignore what everyone else was doing. You can’t change other people. You can try but you’ll drive yourself mad. So rather than policing, I decided to change my mentality and only focus on polishing myself. I thought that maybe it would inspire others to follow my example and I could help to preserve those values that seem to be lost in today’s world. Those values being good manners, chivalry, dressing well, and of course the American Popular Songbook that is really America’s classical music.
So, you see, the message is not just about music although it plays a major role. I have made an explicit effort to reject everything I find wrong with today’s culture and to be the example I want to see in the world. My mother told me that when I was in high school, she worried I would get made fun of and bullied for being so different. But instead, she was surprised to see that hardly anyone bothered me. She thinks its because I had such a confident sense of self that the other kids respected me for it and may have even been inspired.
Ultimately, as an ambassador and connoisseur, say, of exquisite values, would you then—by crusade, prayer, sheer optimism or ..….try to win converts?
Well, thank you! That’s very kind of you to say so. I’ll try my best to win converts musically speaking, because this is my art and what I do. I will always be in favor of increasing my audience and spreading appreciation for a genre of music that I fully believe deserves a wider appreciation. But with everything else, its like I said—I can only focus on myself. It’s a free country, after all and it’s none of my business what everyone else does.
What is the best and worst argument to be made for classic American pop standards?
There are a lot of great things about the American Songbook. Jazz standards are universal. Everyone knows them, which is why they are called a “standard repertoire.”
I have been to many hotels around the world, from Italy and Cuba to Morocco and Vietnam, and on many an occasion have heard a pianist in a hotel lobby playing a standard I knew and so I jumped right on in singing!
The American songbook consists of compositions by Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen to name a few. They were all masters of marrying melody with lyric. There is so much a singer can do to convey a story to their audience with these lyrics in an intimate cabaret room. For the audience, it transports. For the performer, it’s pure joy. All around it’s a great experience, a very specific kind of experience that you can’t get from a huge pop concert with fireworks and seizure inducing strobe lights.
I suppose the worst argument that could be made is that some songs are outdated, or maybe so overplayed that people might get tired of them. To that, I say guess what! There are hundreds if not thousands of standards and as a performer, you can choose the lesser-known ones to set yourself apart, and you can choose songs that pertain to the context of today. You can even change the way you play them or write your own! I can’t imagine what other negative arguments could be made for standards. They’re classic. Why do you think songs like “The Way You Look Tonight” or “I Get A Kick Out Of You” have never gone out of style?
Who constitutes the majority of your audiences?
With this question, you might be expecting me to answer with older people, maybe in their 60’s and up. But I disagree. I think there are a lot of young people who appreciate this kind of music. There certainly are in New York. You just have to find them. Its just not center stage in the media so you wouldn’t think there are. Young audiences may include music students or anyone with a similar situation to mine in that they were exposed to it from an early age. This music is very romantic so I imagine that couples or anyone in love would be prone to its charms. As far as pop culture is concerned, I think both Michael Feinstein and Michael Buble are doing a fine job at educating the masses of young people. I’ve met plenty of young girls who are crazy about Buble. It’s the Sinatra/Bobbysoxer syndrome all over again!
Are you satisfied with this audience or would you love to see it grow and get less grey?
Of course I would love to see my audience grow, who wouldn’t? As I’ve said before, this kind of music is timeless and will never go out of style. So, I’m not worried. Barbra Streisand came on the scene, selling out jazz clubs in Manhattan and selling hit records at the time the Beatles’ rock and roll phase was just starting to take the world by storm. Her career thrived at a time when pop culture was shifting away from the aging legends such as Judy Garland. There’s room for everybody and everything. And just think. Paul McCartney released his first album of jazz standards called “Kisses on the Bottom” last year and it sounds great! To drive my point home, Tony Bennett is still touring all over the place giving huge concerts to adoring fans of all ages. Harry Connick, Jr. took the torch from Sinatra, who then passed it on to Michael Buble. I’m hoping to be the next in line!
Granted, any classical tradition has its irrefutable merits that standardize culture. Then as time passes the majority of its appeal wanes. How do you recover its initial appeal, how do you make it new again without being redundant?
There are many ways in which you can do this. You can write new songs within the same style that are fresh and relevant to today. You can also create new arrangements of old standards, which is something I enjoy doing because it requires creativity and can be a lot of fun when you really get into it. There are so many different things you can do to a song to set your version apart from other artists, such as modulations, different tempos, instrumentation, melodic lines or phrasing, repetitive motifs, stylistic changes, and rhythmic feels. And besides all that, no one else sounds like you so right off the bat, you’re unique.
Do we see or expect, at some point, Mr. Rumbough penning some new standards in tune with the present age? And why not?
Funny you should ask that because I just wrote, orchestrated, and recorded a song called “Awakened” for a Supernova Media film, also called “Awakened,” starring Julianne Michele, John Savage, Edward Furlong, and Steven Bauer. My song will be featured in the film when it comes out this fall, and will then be available for purchase on iTunes! It was a big challenge for me writing for jazz quintet and strings but I’m quite proud of my first composing attempt and extremely excited to share it with everyone!
What are your favorite songs in the “standard repertoire”?
I think this is the question I am asked the most! Sometimes I reply, “Do you ask a parent who their favorite child is?” There are too many great songs, how could I possibly choose? There are definitely some songs I tend to sing more than others, not necessarily because I like them more but because they are better suited to me singing them. I go through different phases, too. I like different songs for different reasons. Determining factors include melody, lyrics, mood, variety, perhaps a particular song may lend itself to letting me use my voice a certain way.
Which ones do audiences invariably respond favorably to and which ones would you rather they warm to but don’t?
I would say that audiences have the tendency to respond favorably to songs they are familiar with. This reminds me of a performance I enjoyed recently by one of my favorite performers, Marilyn Maye. She was singing at The Royal Room at The Colony in Palm Beach, which is where I hope to be performing someday soon. She sang a whole New York medley and after singing “I Happen to Like New York,” her pianist, Ted Firth jumped into Sinatra’s famous introduction to “New York, New York.” The audience got so excited and before she started singing, Marilyn yanked it away from them, saying “not yet!” and sang an entirely different song altogether. It was a great moment, and very smart of her to leave them yearning for it.
I like to try to sing more obscure songs as well. It not only promotes an underappreciated song but it sets you apart as a performer if you do songs that haven’t been done too often. If it’s successful, it may become a signature for you! I’m happy to say that so far I haven’t performed a song that wasn’t received well. Maybe that speaks more to the fact that I don’t have enough experience, but I hope it never happens! It pays to be careful of what songs you choose to introduce to the audience for the first time, whether it’s the first time they are hearing the song itself or the first time they are hearing you sing that song. After observing Marilyn Maye, I’ve grown more aware of the importance of being selective. For example, I am a young man so it would be inappropriate for me to sing, “Here’s to Life.” On the flip side, one song I like very much that I won’t be able to sing forever is “Blame It On My Youth.”
Lately, “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” have been my go-to song choices because I can really communicate easily through them. After all, its not just singing a song, but incorporating acting into the performance that really carries the story across. With these songs, though, I don’t have to act. They are truly how I feel!
You had rightfully stated the popularity and phenomenon of Barbra Streisand in the age of the Beatles and beyond. What do you think led to Ms. Streisand’s singular broad appeal?
I think Barbra Streisand had several fundamental things going for her. She had enormous confidence that showed in everything she did. She had determination and drive. She was a perfectionist and strived for excellence. Another thing was that she was young and fresh. She was not considered to be especially attractive by critics at the time and she had very humble beginnings. This makes people want to root for the underdog. And to top it all off, that voice of hers is unique, pristine and clear as a bell, youthful but expressive of a wide array of emotions beyond her years. And such a powerhouse! People love her because she is exceptional at what she does, but behind all that is a kooky, down-to-earth honesty that people can relate to. It makes her human and that makes people adore her for a lifetime, after they’ve already been hooked by her sensational talent. It’s like Jennifer Lawrence tripping at the Oscars! People love her because she has a great sense of humor and can laugh at herself.
As a Young Turk in this well-worn, traditional procession, what fresh ideas or contribution, if any, do you foresee imbuing the great American “standard repertoire”?
I’m flattered that you think I can predict the future but that remains to be seen! I can tell you one thing, though. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, and I’m looking forward to enjoying a long life and career filled with making the music I love!
What made you think that you wanted to be a musician?
Music has always played a major role in my life, since my mother sang to me every night at bedtime growing up and since joining church choir at age 6. I was definitely a choir geek through high school. My first “awakening” to standards came from listening to Christine Andreas in the car when I was about 10. She has such a sexy voice that hearing it for the first time really captured me the way watching a Marilyn Monroe film does. It inspired me. My grandmother, the actress Dina Merrill and Christine have been good friends since they did On Your Toes together on Broadway in 1983. So, when Christine was recording her first album, Love Is Good, she asked my dad, Stanley Rumbough, who is a photographer, to shoot for her album cover. My parents took me to hear Christine’s debut at the Café Carlyle and that was a pivotal moment for me. Getting all dressed up and going into the city for a special evening, (I grew up in Greenwich, CT) to hear and watch this sophisticated songstress perform at the legendary Café Carlyle was, in my mind, the epitome of New York glamour. My grandmother was there and I met her friends, Joan Rivers and Arlene Dahl and although I was young and had no idea who they were until my mother told me later, I felt that I was experiencing something very special. I was first getting a taste of a world I knew I wanted to be in and I knew that I wanted to be up on that stage one day and make it look as easy as Christine does—the way she floats effortlessly around while the perfect blend of piano, bass and drums support her.
The second “awakening” that really “sealed the deal” came when I was 12 years old. My mom’s friend, Patty Davis, who is a talented violinist in New York, gave me her father’s “American Popular Songbook” collection of 5 discs from the Smithsonian, complete with art by Al Hirschfeld on the cover. I was about to leave for my first choir tour to England but before I left, I listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s “This Can’t Be Love” from her Rodgers & Hart songbook, “The Boy Next Door” and “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart” by Judy Garland. Ella seduced me with her sweet, perfectly controlled voice taming a whole jungle of squealing trumpets in an arrangement that had “attitude” written all over it. Then, Judy had an old-fashioned quality I immediately fell for, melancholy and full of longing. I knew nothing about her, of course, but could tell there was a long history of despair behind that voice. When I got to Europe, as soon as I could get a chance, I went to a CD store and bought box set collections of both Ella and Judy. I quickly memorized all of their lyrics, bought more CDs and added many more to the list, including Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Doris Day, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee. I learned by listening, which I believe is the best teacher—osmosis.
I wasn’t really faced with the question of “what do I want to do when I grow up” until I had to start the awful college application process. I guess I put it off until the last minute. You see, I don’t ever like thinking about the long-term future because it only causes anxiety. Faced with the huge question of “the rest of my life” is terrifying to everyone, I’m sure. And I know what I want to do! I can’t imagine what its like for people who aren’t so lucky. Being faced with that gave me a lot of doubts, though. It certainly isn’t the most practical decision in this day and age to become a jazz singer. So, I came to the simple solution that I just won’t grow up! Why spend your life doing something you don’t love? It’s a no-brainer for me. You only live once so it’s important to make the most of it! Tony Bennett always says that he has never worked a day in his life because what he does is fun. That’s my kind of life.
What has been the most exciting, unexpected development since that initial phase you chose a life as a musician?
Meeting my dear friend, Christine Schott at a cocktail party in October. She became my publicist and has already helped me tremendously since. She is the one who thought it would be a good idea to have me sing at the 56th annual International Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach that my great-grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post founded. She is truly my fairy godmother.
What do you get from music that you can’t anywhere else?
I haven’t gotten it anywhere else yet. The reason I love jazz so much is that it resembles the feeling of being in love. It’s so romantic.
Let me paint a picture for you. You’re at home with the woman you love, on the patio surrounded by candles and a light breeze carries Stan Getz playing the saxophone softly floating over a bed of strings.
Is music mostly an emotional, intellectual and/or psychological exercise for you?
This may sound absolutely crazy. But in the past year or so, I’ve started to notice that when I listen to someone like Ella Fitzgerald, Vic Damone, or Barbra Streisand, or a voice that truly resonates with me, I’m not just listening. I actually feel in my throat what it must feel like to them in order to produce those sounds. The vowel shapes, where the pitches lie in their registers. It’s hard to explain. And by the way, I am not, by any means, implying that I believe I can produce those same sounds myself. Not even close. Listening to a woman’s voice makes my own feel lighter because I can imagine what it must feel like to sing without the range limitations of a baritone. And this helps me tremendously, little by little, get closer to vocal freedom. My range has improved so much from even 6 months ago, and I believe it’s due to this empathetic experience. Even listening to Vic Damone, another baritone, helps because his voice is so flexible. So, in this way, it’s very much a psychological exercise.
Music is definitely an emotional exercise. It has to be, or you aren’t putting your all into it. An intellectual exercise, always. Every once in a while, I stumble on lyrics to a song I haven’t sung in a while. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. So I need to go back and dust the cobwebs off everything every once in a while to keep it fresh in my mind!
Recently, the renown classical pianist, András Schiff stated that when playing Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” —which ranges from C major through all 24 musical keys—that he hears the color of C major as snow-white; B minor as pitch-black; C-sharp as yellow; D sharp minor as pale blue. Can you relate to this? Do you have specific color associations with certain aspects of music?
I can’t say that I can relate to this. I’ve never actually thought about it before.
Do you need much practice in order to better your work or is it less for you?
I don’t really think of it as practice because I’m just singing all the time, or thinking about it all the time. All day long, it seems I have a new song stuck in my head every 2 minutes. I sing in the shower, I sing while I’m washing the dishes, I whistle while I’m walking down the street, imitating big band lines. I sure had to practice a lot before first performing “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” That song is full of lyrics and goes fast! I have all my songs memorized, though, so it’s all readily available. The tough part is preparing for a show. Writing arrangements, rehearsing cues, figuring out what I want to say between numbers and figuring out the flow of the song order. Singing is the easy part. It’s public speaking I dread the most.
Who are your favorite authors or favorite books?
I love The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and anything by Mitch Albom.
Your favorite museums and cities?
My favorite cities are New York, Florence, Paris, and London.
My favorite museum has to be Hillwood in Washington D.C. because its my family history. Its where my great-grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post showcased her collection of 18th century French and Russian Imperial Art. I also love the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Museum of Natural History in D.C.
What are your sartorial ethics on and off stage?
I believe in dressing to impress. On stage, I will wear a dark suit or tuxedo, depending on what the occasion calls for. It’s best keeping it conservative as not to distract from the performance. In general, I think quality is much more important than quantity. I have most of my clothes custom-tailored by “British Textiles” in Hong Kong so the fit is perfect, the quality of the material is top notch and I have total freedom in choosing exactly what I want. I also collect cufflinks. One of my favorite pairs is vintage Cartier with sapphires set in gold from my grandfather. Whenever I go out to dinner or go to a show, I always wear a tie & jacket, no matter how casual everyone else is, simply because that’s what is respectful to performers and that is the traditional, “informal” uniform that men wear when going out. Casual for me is still very dressy to most people but I never compare myself to others.
I have my own set of standards.
What would you consider an ideal achievement for you and your art?
One day I would love to perform at The Carlyle and The Royal Room at The Colony. Another thing I would love to do one day is record an album with a full orchestra—big band, strings and all. But these are personal wishes to satisfy my musical hunger and my bucket list. I don’t have any lofty goals like trying to win a Grammy or anything like that. I just want to do the best that I can. If you love what you do and do your best, success and everything else will follow.