David Torresen created a valentine to his favorite songbird and unleashed a minimovement. Visitors to his Web site, www.peggylee.com, were so impressed by its depth of information on the blues-influenced jazz singer that the D.C. resident started an electronic mailing list in 1998 to promote fan discourse. Topics, at first Peggy Lee-centric, soon expanded to a wide-ranging dialogue on the “Great American Songbook” and its interpreters, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne.
That’s the how-it-all-began story told by some of the mailing list’s more than 500 members, 100 of whom fluttered to Washington last weekend for the second annual Songbirds Convergence. Before the list was created, they say, they lacked a place to swap information and resources about their shared passion. Now, they cherish the opportunity to gather in appreciation of the music of a certain age, whether it’s through performing, critiquing, staging, researching, or simply listening. It’s Torresen who came up with the plan for the first convergence, held last year in New York.
“I’ve never met such a wonderful group of people…and I’m old!” announced Trudi Mann at the convention’s opening event, held last Friday evening at a cozy downtown hotel bar. Mann, a cabaret singer from Long Island, doesn’t so much introduce herself as she passionately erupts in a cloud of transparent leopard-skin fabric, teased hair, and Liza Minnelli eyes. The Songbirds’ “hostess with the mostest” was thrilled to meet many cyber friends in person for the first time.
“That’s Pinky Wintersand the New York director Gerry Geddes,” she cooed, pointing out a redhead in a spangled jacket sipping cocktails with a sleek gentleman in shades of beige. “There’s the premier jazz singer Chris Connor, and there’s Lou Spence81 years old and came all the way from L.A. He did eight albums for Frank Sinatra.”
Peter Wagenaar traveled 18 hours by plane and four hours by busfrom South Africato get to his second Songbirds Convergence. What was most wonderful, he said, was the mix of buffs, critics, and musicians in attendance. “A lot of older people here became techno-savvy just so they could be part of these discussions,” he said. “I thought I was pretty knowledgeable, but if I threw out a question about a song, I’d have people mentioning the most obscure singles on some dead label from the ’50s and offering to make a copy. The group as a whole has the most incredible knowledge base.”
The crowd stayed late into the evening, murmuring over drinks and the tinkle of the piano and gearing up for a weekend of talks and concerts. (Full disclosure: Washington City Paper contributing writer Joel E. Siegel helped coordinate the event.) The next morning, the group was scheduled for a breakfast screening of a 1955 Colgate Variety Hourthat venerable star-making show that aired on NBC half a century agoat Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge. The stars? Ella Fitzgerald and Leea nod of sorts to where Songbirds began. “These singers and composers are 20th-century heroes,” Torresen observes. “They hold us together.”
And camaraderie was evident throughout the weekend. At the Songbirds’ closing Sunday brunch at Mimi’s American Bistro, Mann took over the mike. “I don’t think there’s a bitch in this room!” she said to applause. Neda Ulaby