SHOEMAKE-- CREATING IN HOSTILE ERA
“Pop music has changed so much since the ‘40s that even a genius like George Gershwin wouldn’t be able to sell his music today.”
That stern observation comes from vibist Charlie Shoemake, a man who writes songs himself and has a fondness for both the great pop music and jazz classics of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
“Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin--these giants operated in a friendly environment,” Shoemake said recently in the Sherman Oaks home he shares with his marital and musical partner of 27 years, singer Sandi Shoemake; the pair will appear with their sextet tonight and Saturday at Le Cafe.
“Today, it’s a hostile one.”
“Even a man like Stephen Sondheim finances his own records,” Sandi added. “He has for years.”
The demise of the popular standard and the onslaught of R&B;, C&W;, rock and other current forms began four decades ago, Charlie Shoemake said. “We lost it (the classic popular music form) in the ‘40s. I was just a kid then, but people I know that were there say that a combination of bad press and bad marketing brought it down. So now we’re stuck with what we’ve got.”
In spite of this seemingly negative atmosphere, Shoemake is selling his songs, songs which are in the Gershwin genre but are much more modern in harmonic construction and are outfitted with lyrics by Arthur Hamilton, who wrote “He Needs Me” and “Cry Me a River.” The most recent collection of these melodies can be heard on “Collaboration” (Pausa), where Bill Holman’s scintillating arrangements and Sandi’s crisp-as-desert-air singing are showcased.
“I’m able to record my songs simply because I’m a jazz musician,” Shoemake said, “and some record companies want them. And, since jazz is a minor market,” the fantastic sales expected of pop music don’t apply.
The 48-year-old Shoemake, who arrived here from his native Houston in 1956 to pursue a career in modern jazz, began seriously composing in 1973 after a seven-year stint with George Shearing. He left Shearing because he wanted to spend time with Sandi and their son, Tal, so, to make a living, the vibist started a jazz improvisation teaching studio at home.
In 1978, he began his solo recording career, and included fleet, complex tunes like “Cure for the Common Chord” and “Sunstroke” on Muse and Discovery label LPs (which included modern giants like pianists Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones and trumpeter Tom Harrell) to spotlight his technically formidable vibes artistry. “I wanted to let people know that I could play as fast and clean as any vibist, and those tracks proved that,” he said.
Then after having established he could really improvise, Shoemake started concocting simpler pieces, pieces suitable, as Sandi noticed, for singing. “I would just be running around the house humming his melodies and thinking, ‘Hey, this would make a great song,”’ said 47-year-old Sandi. So Shoemake pursued songwriting.
The Shoemakes met and married in 1959, when Sandi was singing with Si Zentner and Charlie was a lounge pianist and studio musician. Two years later, when Charlie decided to switch to vibes, Sandi supported the family, working as a staff singer for NBC and as the featured vocalist with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra.
Though Sandi--who sees herself as a jazz-influenced rather than a strictly jazz singer--spent most of the late ‘60s and ‘70s raising Tal, she kept singing. “When Charlie was with George (Shearing), I would sit in,” she said. “And whenever Charlie had a small group job, he’d have me sing. So I’ve never really stopped, even if I haven’t been steadily working as a professional.” The singer’s debut solo LP, “Slowly” (Discovery) was released in 1984.
The pair feels that, in spite of the roadblocks in the way of jazz today, they have been “lucky.”
“We’re doing exactly what we want to do. We’ve paid a price for this, but we’re still fortunate,” Shoemake said. “There are a lot of young kids out there, many of whom I’ve taught, who are not getting the breaks. If jazz had a great marketing person, there’d be a much larger audience, and, along with it, a lot more opportunity. Jazz is not mass music, but it could be sold.”