Local teen hits a high note, named Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador

As a child, Finn Sagal and his siblings grew up surrounded by jazz and classic standards in the “Great American Songbook,” a musical canon of the most influential American songs from the early 20th century.

“Our house has been filled with jazz and that kind of music since their birth,” said their mother McNally Sagal, wife of jazz musician and La Cañada school board member David Sagal. “It’s run through our house every second — that is definitely their influence.”

On July 22, that musical upbringing paid off in spades when the 17-year-old La Cañada High School senior was selected from among 40 of the nation’s most talented young singers to serve as “2017 Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador” by Emmy and Grammy Award-winning musical artist Michael Feinstein, who is principal conductor of the Pasadena Pops.

“I couldn’t believe it when they called my name. It was all kind of a blur,” Finn Sagal recalled in a recent interview.

As Songbook Youth Ambassador, Finn Sagal will receive one professionally written musical arrangement and be called throughout the year to sing in performances nationwide, many alongside Feinstein himself.

The title came after a Top 10 showdown that culminated a one-week intensive seminar held by Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Foundation’s Songbook Academy held in the organization’s headquarters in Indiana. Participants were broken into teams of 10, working from morning to night both jointly and under the tutelage of team leaders and accompanists representing the best the music industry has to offer.

Going into the academy with four years of high school choir experience under teacher Jeff Brookey and a fairly developed set of pipes, the La Cañada teenager said he tended to style himself vocally after classic crooner Frank Sinatra.

But as soon as he got there, he learned the program would ask even more of him — to be himself.

“They basically said, ‘You’re trying too hard,’ so I stopped being a jazz singer, I stopped being Frank Sinatra. I stopped being someone else and started being Finn,” he said. “I think that’s what really helped me improve.”

Vocal coach and musical director Beckie Menzie, a well-regarded Chicago cabaret singer and pianist who mentored Finn Sagal’s group, said the Songbook Academy was Feinstein’s way of seeing that American standards are passed down and preserved throughout generations.

“The best way to do that is to teach them to kids from 15 to 18,” Menzie said. “Then they’ll be singing them for the rest of their lives.”

In Finn Sagal’s case, she added, previous knowledge of the lexicon was just part of what he brought to the academy. She recalled teammates resoundingly looked up to him.

“Finn has an ‘it’ factor,” Menzie said. “He has a natural charm, and he is who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin — there are people in their 50s who aren’t. He was beloved in our group.”

The impact of Menzie and fellow mentors’ work with her son during the one-week program was obvious to McNally Sagal, who flew out to the Midwest to visit with family and catch the performances of all 40 students at the end of the academy.

When he sang the 1950 classic “Luck Be a Lady,” followed by the 1938 standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” — which his paternal grandmother had once sung to soldiers as a USO camp show singer under the stage name Sara Macon — McNally Sagal said the entire family was floored.

“Our jaws were on our chests,” she said. “We were just amazed by his poise. I couldn’t believe how much he’d grown as a performer.”

Finn Sagal is the youngest of three children, all of whom have regularly performed with the David Sagal Jazz Trio over the years. Brother Boris plays guitar, while singer and bassoon-playing sister Nora notably lent her vocal talents to George Clooney’s 2014 film “Monuments Men.”

Although he hasn’t yet chosen a college, Finn Sagal is considering studying opera so he can fully explore the range and depth of his voice. The academy helped cement his desire to pursue singing as a passion and career, an interest that is just now coming full circle after a lifetime of listening to and loving music.

“I want to master my voice,” he said.

On Friday, Finn and Nora Sagal will join their father on stage at Yamashiro Hollywood, 1999 N. Sycamore Ave., in Los Angeles, when the David Sagal Jazz Trio takes the stage in a performance from 8 to 11 p.m.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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