You might say that Michael Feinstein has always had a unique approach to music. As a child, he was unable to learn from traditional piano lessons, perhaps because he’d already begun learning by his own means. Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, he wasn’t attracted to the popular music of that era, but was instead drawn to the Great American Songbook almost from the beginning.
In his youth, Feinstein began performing in piano bars around his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, then moved to Los Angeles at age 20. When the avid record collector discovered a collection of private records of Oscar Levant on piano, he decided to contact the pianist’s widow who invited him to come over. Through her, he was introduced to Ira Gershwin and eventually Feinstein was hired as Gershwin’s personal assistant. “It was a thrilling experience and Ira was amazed that someone my age knew so much about his world and his work,” says Feinstein. Through his relationship with Gershwin, Feinstein had access to numerous unpublished Gershwin songs, many of which Feinstein later recorded.
The influence of the Gershwins stayed with Feinstein as he became an established composer, arranger, and performer of the Great American Songbook. “I was attracted to classic songs because of the combination of lyric and music—left and right brain. They have incredible structure,” he explains. “It is a lost art to be able to use perfect rhymes and put them into the form that these songs offer.” Feinstein has made it his personal goal is to “perpetuate” the Great American Songbook and keep this music alive with today’s audiences. “What I do is present the songs in a contemporary way—my current interpretations of them. And even though many of the people who like the music are older, there are always young people discovering the music and falling in love with it,” says Feinstein. Why is preservation of this genre so critical? Feinstein contends that songs written in the early part of the 20th century are the equivalent of art created during the Italian Renaissance. “Nobody created them any better than they were at that time,” he adds, explaining that there are a couple of reasons for this. “Music reflects the time in which it was created; we live in a volatile time,” he says, adding that today songwriters take a lot of shortcuts. Second, he says that music changed fundamentally when the singer songwriter came into prominence. “It used to be a song was written and it was recorded by hundreds of people, interpreted by hundreds of people. Now, we hear a song and it’s usually one performance, one record, one recording. So it’s less about the actual music and lyric—it’s about the whole production, or it might be about the video.”
Feinstein performs more than 150 live shows each year, explaining that the connection with the audience is very important to him. “Performing live is a unique experience because most people listen to music by artificial means. That does not communicate music in the same way. Music exists to bring people together. When it is heard live, it is an acoustic experience and a physiological experience,” he says. “It is the response [of the audience] that colors the way the music is presented. It affects the artist. So the audience is part of what feeds the soul of the artist and makes us want to continue to do what we do.” To achieve his mission of promulgating the Great American Songbook, Feinstein has done far more than just perform the music. He’s earned his title of “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook” through his other efforts as well. In 2000, the Library of Congress appointed Feinstein to the National Recording Preservation Board tasked with “safeguarding America’s musical heritage.” In 2009, he became artistic director at the Carmel, Indiana, Center for the Performing Arts. And he launched a three-part PBS Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook series in 2010.
But much of Feinstein’s focus today is the Great American Songbook Foundation, which he founded in 2007. Headquartered at the Center for the Performing Arts, the foundation’s mission is to “bring the music of the Great American Songbook to our young people today, and to preserve it for the generations to come.” It holds the archive of American popular music—a vast collection of sheet music, with specific collections from the estates of various songwriters, including their work, lyric sheets, memorabilia, and other ephemera. “One of the most important things the foundation does is have an annual high school competition where kids apply from all over the country and 10 finalists come to Indiana for the week. There are master classes and different events that teach young people how to interpret these songs,” he says. At the end of the week, three prizes are awarded and those winners become Great American Songbook Youth Ambassadors for one year.
There are a couple of exhibits at the American Songbook Foundation’s offices located in the Performing Arts Center and Feinstein hopes to eventually open a full-fledged museum for the genre. In 2012, Feinstein jumped into a totally new role when he became conductor of Pasadena Pops, following the sudden death of Marvin Hamlisch. What was really astounding about Feinstein accepting the post was that he had never conducted before. “I didn’t want to do it at first, but then I realized that it was sort of like the stars were in alignment, and sort of like Marvin was passing something on to me,” says Feinstein about accepting the challenge to learn to conduct. “It was extremely hard because I had never done it before.” Feinstein took “crash” conducting lessons and even hired an orchestra to practice.
He manages to balance these huge commitments by keeping a tight schedule, always with his musical mission in mind. “The way I keep up with it all is by making very wise use of my time,” he explains. “It’s all about balance.” “I feel that this music needs to survive in that music is an extraordinarily powerful and resonant healing tool that not only makes us feel more joy in our lives, but it brings people together,” he says. “One of the problems in the world today is that we’ve lost common ground—things that bring us together. Music connects people on a heart level where we have commonality and helps us to put aside our differences.” “I truly believe that, if the country had not jettisoned all of the arts programs over the last 30 years, we would be in very different shape as a nation,” he says, further explaining the power and importance of music. “The loss of arts has been one of the most devastating things that has happened to our society. Music, art, theater is as important as the air we breathe, as any computer skill, or math skill, or reading skill that one can learn. It fulfills a need in our being that cannot be fulfilled in any other way.”