Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Jim Speake: His Own Brass Band

It's very possible that your life in art-your successful life in art-might be a struggle from start to finish. -Sally Warner

Jim Speake starring in I’m a Brass Band, the Music of Cy Coleman, comes back to the Duplex for two performance, Sat., Oct. 11th and Sun., Oct. 19th 4:30 PM.
The show is directed by Lennie Watts with musical direction by Steven Ray Watkins, featuring the SRW band.

The show includes songs from: "Sweet Charity", "Barnum", City of Angels, "The Will Rogers Follies", "Seesaw", "The Life", Wildcat and more.

Two shows are scheduled: Saturday 11 October at 4:30pm, Sunday 19 October at 4:30pm. Both of the shows are in the Cabaret Room of The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street at 7th Ave. NY, NY 10014.
 There is a $15 cover charge and a two drink minimum. There is a $5 discount on the cover charge for MAC, AEA and Cabaret Hotline members. Reservations are recommended: 212-255-5438 or
This past summer, I was lucky enough to catch Jim Speake's tribute to Cy Coleman at The Duplex in New York. I became a confirmed fan of Jim's after catching his previous show, Till The Cows Come Home,a couple of years ago.

In fact, I enjoyed the show so much that I saw it TWICE! Jim is a true southern gentleman with a smooth relaxed style that is comforting in this fast paced world. Cy Coleman is a perfect fit for him.
Broadway composer Cy Coleman once summed up his SHOW business philosophy in a conversation with conductor-arranger Fred Barton: “I like to entertain.”
With Balpha Noojin.
And entertain he did, in a prolific series of the most high-octane, brassy Broadway scores ever written, including SWEET CHARITY, SEESAW, LITTLE ME, BARNUM, THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, and Broadway’s ultimate big-band swing show, CITY OF ANGELS
His shelf was lined with Tony Awards and his songs set millions of toes tapping throughout his over 40-year career.Cy Coleman will be represented on Broadway this season when Kristen Chenowith stars in the first Broadway revival of On The Twentieth Century (at The Roundabout Theatre). Fred Barton brings American Showstoppers: An Evening of Cy Coleman to The Schimmel Center at Pace University on October 18th)  

Luckily for those of you lucky enough to be in New York on October 11th and 19th, you have two more chances to see this delightful show also celebrating the rich legacy of Cy Coleman.   

Jim and I sat down recently to discuss his body of "worth" and the journey that has led him to The Duplex.
Jim was born in Alabama to a farming family. He grew up on a farm in a very small town surrounded by cousins. It was a big farm dealing mainly with cattle and cotton when Jim was a little boy. Cotton used to be KING in the south. When Jim was in the third grade, his family moved to Decatur, Alabama, which was a little larger so that he and his sister could have better schools to go to so his mother thought.
His parents had been divorced and his mother had remarried. His sister went off to college. His mother and her new husband decided to send Jim off to a military boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
He feels that that was a wonderful experience. From there, he went to the University of Alabama. There, he got a degree in business administration.
After he graduated with that degree, Jim went to the University of Georgia. There, he started working on a degree in landscape architecture.That got interrupted when he got drafted into the army. He spent two and a half years in the army. After that, he went back to continue at the University of Georgia in landscape architecture. He worked as a landscape architect for several years in Atlanta and in Nashville, Tennessee.
After that, he went to Washington, DC. and he worked for the Historic American Buildings Survey as a landscape architect.That is a documentation agency and is under the National Parks Service.
After Washington DC, Jim moved back to Atlanta where he started a business that catered to landscape architects selling outdoor furniture and sculpture and other items for the garden. It was all on the end of high quality. Many items were imported from Italy, France, and England. He did that as a retail business for several years.
He realized that so many of his customers were actually in the design trade. Jim moved into the Design Center in Atlanta.

He was there for close to twenty years. During that period of time, Jim started to think once again about performing. He had performed as a child.         
Unfortunately, he did not get much encouragement from those around him so he let that go by the wayside. In high school and in both universities, however, Jim sang in choruses. He always loved singing. He started taking voice lessons again in Atlanta.
Not long after that, there was a company there that did Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.Jim auditioned and started getting cast. He continued taking voice lessons and added acting lessons as well.
After a while, Jim ended up selling his whole sale furniture business to his business manager and moved to New York in 2000 to really get the training that he realized that he needed. He has been in New York ever since.
He began by taking classes at HB Studios and by taking private voice lessons. He also took a summer intensive at The Neighborhood Playhouse in acting. He then did another summer intensive the following summer at Cap 21, the musical theatre program of NYU. 
Then, he started auditioning and did a fare number of off-Broadway shows. He was fifty-five when he started this leg of his life's journey. He began to realize that it was very limiting what he was able to do. He didn't have much luck trying to attract an agent because so many his age had more theatrical experience then he did. He was very discouraged by several people that he was just not going to get an agent. He continued, however, with his studies at HB Studios. KT Sullivan was teaching a class at HB Studios. 
She only taught one quarter, he thinks, and he was lucky enough to end up in her class.
While he was there, KT had Eric Michael Gillette come in as a guest teacher.
Jim spoke with him after the class and asked him who he studied voice with. Eric recommended that Jim see Patrick Degennaro.
Patrick Degennaro
Jim started taking private voice lessons with Patrick. In the course of doing that, after six or more months, Patrick told Jim of friends who were doing a cabaret program called Summer in The City with Lennie Watts and Lina Koutrakos. Jim tried to get in but missed that session. It was too late for that season. Lennie, however, got in touch with Jim later. He was going to be doing what he calls his CabLab. Jim signed up for that. In addition to Lennie, they had musical director Steven Ray Watkins. At this point, Jim had been in New York five years. He was just getting ready to have his sixtieth birthday, so he thought, "why not do a cabaret show" to celebrate. He asked Lennie if he would direct. Lennie said yes. Because of Lennie's collaboration with Steven, that was a natural fit. They did a "friends and family" cabaret show. It was standing room only! Seeing that this was his first time out of the gate, he charged no cover charge and he picked up the entire room's drink charge! He paid EVERYONE's two drink minimum!
He had never done another show in New York prior to that except theatre and classes. "It is not a money making proposition!" As it is for most people treading the boards in cabaret, getting that audience is a constant struggle. Jim and I both understand that all too well. That first show was not seen by those in the cabaret world, it was strictly friends and family. Jim had a great time working with Lennie and Steven. Artistically, it was a triumph for all. After that, Jim started focusing on pursuing a cabaret career. Creating his own shows, he can sing "only eleven o'clock numbers" if he says so himself. He can sing songs that are primarily sung by women or ingenue or juvenile songs if he desires. The fact that he was approaching sixty was not a factor in whether or not he could sing a song.
That was very liberating and very exciting. This is a medium that Jim loves. This got him started on a path that Jim has stuck with. He has also stuck with Lennie and Steven with every show he has ever done in cabaret. That has led him to where he is today.
The collaboration with other artists is what makes Jim the happiest in cabaret, the creative part of putting a show together. The part that makes him the unhappiest is the difficulty in getting the word out and trying to build an audience. "Honestly, it is one of the most painful parts of the process.It just feels awkward. I'm getting a little bit more accustomed to it."
Jim has become an entertainer simply because of the joy of it. It is something he always desired to do. He did not pursue it because of the lack of support from his family. They just simply wanted him to do something else. He was too insecure to say, "Wait a minute. I want to do THIS!" He just didn't go there. He has always regretted it. He felt that everything he was doing in life was somewhat of a compromise. The reality was that he was "supposed" to take over the family farm. When he did landscape architecture, it was yet ANOTHER compromise. It dealt with the land, but it was artistic and creative. He always had that artistic bent.
With Jim's current show, the focus is, as stated earlier, Cy Coleman. Why Cy? Jim was familiar with his Broadway work, primarily Sweet Charity, and his standards and loves his music. As he started doing research, he began to get more and more excited. He was also familiar with The Will Rogers Follies. He was also familiar with some of the music from Barnum, although he never saw that.Then, of course, there are all the popular songs such as Witchcraft, The Best Is Yet to Come, and so many others.It is a huge catalog of music. As he began to do more research, he came to know that there is so much more than he ever imagined. He had no idea to the extent of how Cy was such a prolific writer through the years and the quality of it. Jim admits that Lennie knew the catalog much better than he did. Lennie felt that it would be a great fit when Jim approached him about the idea.
Jim admits that his favorite songs from Cy are those he wrote with Carolyn Leigh.
Although there was no encouragement from his family, Jim's mother played the piano! He would sing along and the bug bit him. His sister WAS put in dance class. Jim would tag along with her to the dance classes. In Jim's last show, Till the Cows Come Home, he actually played a recording of him singing as a child. That recording came along because one day he joined his mother at the dance class and somehow he ended up singing in front of the guy that was teaching the dance class. He thought it was incredible that this four year old kid could sing like this and that it should be documented. He arranged to make that recording. Jim ended up singing five songs for that recording. They are amusing to hear not only from the age point of view but also because of Jim's already pronounced southern accent.
Add to that his selection of songs! One of those songs was Bippity-Boppity-Boo.How in the world he learned those lyrics as a four year old is mind boggling, but he did! From there, he was in talent shows and sang in church. When the teachers in school found out he could sing, Jim was always being asked to get up and sing. That ended up pissing off a lot of the kids because of the attention he was getting.The reality was that he started getting beat up after school. It killed that desire to entertain at the time. His family preferred for Jim to be a football player or be in little league or a myriad of other things that he had absolutely no desire for. Because he was a boy, although his mother was a musician, it was frowned upon. It was a cultural thing. They promoted his sister although she didn't have the same inclination.
According to Jim, she was "never much of a singer and just wasn't interested in it." That was the unfortunate part of all this, but Jim doesn't feel angry with his family about those circumstances. He kind of understands it all.
His voice lessons really started in Atlanta. At the top, his mother was up in years. He went to visit her once after he had already started doing vocal exercises. While visiting, he said, "Please excuse me. I'm going in the other room to do my vocal exercises!" He was singing to a recording that he had. His mother walked in and said "You sound really good and it makes me sad that I didn't encourage you." Jim thought "Noowww she tells me!" At the time, Jim was in his late forties.
I asked Jim if he could ever turn this all off. His answer was a quick "Why?"
Who inspires Jim as an artist? Hugh Jackman. He sings, dances, AND acts. He does it all and he's charismatic.He also did it in the right order age wise.
Jim feels very fortunate that he has met the various people who have contributed to his career since starting out. Starting with KT Sullivan bringing him into this. She introduced him to the RIGHT people. Each introduction led to another introduction.
One of the biggest joys is the community of other artists that Jim has met as part of the New York cabaret scene. Lennie Watts is at the top of that totem pole.
Put Cy Coleman, Jim Speak, Stephen Ray Watkins, and Lennie Watts together and you get pure gold. See for yourself on Saturday afternoon, October 11th 4:30 at The Duplex. Click HERE for more info!
For more information about Jim Speake go to

Thank to ALL mentioned in this blog for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating the first Fifty Years of Hello, Dolly!


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

Be sure and RESERVE TODAY to see Jim Speake on October 11th as he celebrates Cy Coleman

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