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TOP OF HER GAME: At 90, Kansas-born superstar still finding new fans

One of the great things about living long is that sometimes you get to see trends you thought were lost forever make surprising comebacks. Marilyn Maye, the Wichita native who got her start some 70 years ago performing what we now call the “American Songbook” (a genre that was pushed aside for a number of years), now finds herself in demand all over again.

But you can’t really call it a second career: It’s more like a third or a fourth. For Marilyn, you see, turned 90 in April. And her moody, bronze-hued voice sounds as miraculously resplendent as it did when she was discovered at a Kansas City supper club in the mid-1950s. Her timing couldn’t be better: The “Songbook” is experiencing a new heyday, and on November 11th Marilyn appears on the Carlsen Center Present’s Winterlude series, in a concert called Marilyn Maye: 90 at Last! with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

Marilyn Maye / Photo courtesy Carlsen Center Presents

Raised in Topeka and Des Moines, the girl with the golden pipes began her career at KC’s now-defunct Colony Steakhouse, in what was then the Ambassador Hotel at 3560 Broadway. “I was fortunate to work in one club for 11 years in Kansas City,” she told Michael Feinstein during a recent PBS special devoted to her (American Songbook at NJPAC). “And during that time … a man showed up in the audience called Steve Allen. And he invited me to do his national television show.”

After numerous stints on The Steve Allen Show, Marilyn signed a record deal with RCA, and with the release of Marilyn the Most she was a star: She became one of the most frequent guests on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (76 appearances), she was a familiar voice in clubs nationwide, and she even appeared in musicals (Mame; Hello, Dolly!).

So it was only logical that Emily Behrmann would seek out Marilyn when planning a Carlsen Center Presents season focusing on strong women. “It’s not just because she’s a big international star,” said Emily, General Manager of the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College. “She started out in Kansas City, and some of our audience still remember those days.” (Other power-house women on the series include Emmylou Harris, Aida Cuevas, Angela Hagenbach, Lisa Loeb, Niyaz, Chita Rivera and Olga Kern.)

Kansas City Jazz Orchestra / Photo courtesy KCJO

Moreover, Emily added, Marilyn’s comeback at New York’s Lincoln Center at age 78 (hosted by the Mabel Mercer Foundation) “was an inspiration not just for women but for all of us. … She’s had an amazing career in the last 10 or 15 years. Why not highlight that, and remind people that this is somebody who is kind of a ‘home-town girl made good’?” Marilyn has been a frequent guest in Kansas City recently (she’s made several appearances at JCCC), so in order to make this 90th birthday performance a special one, the Center decided to match her up with the extraordinary Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, which is currently led by trumpeter Clint Ashlock.

And because the Center’s Winterlude sub-series highlights both high-end local artists andnational headliners, “incorporating Marilyn with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra bridges that gap, because they’re playing at a really high level,” Emily said. At her last Carlsen Center appearance, Marilyn was 86 and asked the Series not make a big deal about her age. “And now it’s, 90 at Last!” Emily said with a laugh. “That’s like part of the show. So yeah, it’s a significant milestone, there’s no denying it.”

Founded in 2003 by Gene Hall and Jim Mair, Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is committed to ‘celebrating the past and embracing the future’

A list of Marilyn’s accolades could fill volumes. In addition to best-selling albums and sold-out performances around the world, she has received a Distinguished Arts Award from the State of Kansas, the Jazz Heritage Award, the KC Jazz Ambassador’s Award of Excellence and a bevy of lifetime achievement awards: from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, KC’s CODA Jazz Fund, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, the Chicago Cabaret Professionals Association, and the American Jazz Museum (which inducted her into its Walk of Fame). The Smithsonian Institution immortalized Marilyn further by including her recording of “Too Late Now” on its list of Best American Compositions of the 20th Century.

It’s a brilliant career that has seen highs and lows, and plenty of surprises. Marilyn describes her return to New York’s jazz cabaret scene “a little frightening, because I thought nobody knows me.” Boy, was she wrong. When the Metropolitan Club opened in September 2006 in lower Manhattan, she thought she might “just do one night. … I thought there would be like six people there. And they were just lined down the street to get in. I was so thrilled.”

Emily Behrmann / Photo courtesy of Carlsen Center Presents

Emily feels honored to be able to host such a distinguished artist (and in her home town) on a series that has now been going for 28 years and has grown from 15 or so performances a season to nearly 40 currently. “My charge is to make the Series connect with the community,” she said, adding that the mission is to serve not just the College and Johnson County but all of the Kansas City metro region. “There’s a whole segment of our audience that ‘does it all’: They go downtown to see things at the Kauffman Center and the Midland and the Folly, and they come here, too.”

During the nine years Emily has held the reins at Carlsen Center Presents (which she took from the capable hands of Charles Rogers, who had led it through the previous decade), she and her advisory board have managed to maintain, with remarkable aplomb, the delicate balance of Kansas City’s performing-arts ecosystem. The goal, she said, is to make the Center “an alternative, a complement to the things that are downtown, instead of trying to re-create the same things. Let’s do things that appeal to a wider audience … retool the programming in such a way that it would attract a broader representation of the community.”

—By Paul Horsley

For tickets, call 913-469-4445 or go to www.jccc.edu/carlsencenter. For more about Marilyn, visit www.marilynmaye.com.

For information about the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra and its regular Helzberg Hall series, go to www.kcjo.org. For tickets to KCJO’s Winter Wonderland on December 4th, call 816-994-7222 or visit www.kauffmancenter.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor; send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic). 

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