Joan Bender
Photograph by Andrew Eccles

 

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Joan Bender
You may have heard hushes before, but you’ve never heard a hush quite like this one. It was Monday night at the Café Carlyle, where Woody Allen has been regaling a crowd of upscale New Yorkers and even further upscale foreigners for the past few years, as star clarinetist with Eddy Davis and his New Orleans Jazz Band. 

In recent months, Woody has taken to ending his sets quietly – after the appropriately boisterous jazz band plays for about 45 minutes, Allen likes to finish with three or four duets featuring himself and the band’s charismatic banjoist-leader, Eddy Davis. Tonight, however, Woody was not to have the last word.  After the final number, Eddy looked at a beautiful young woman seated about 20 inches in front of himself and Allen and started to play.  Without a word of forewarning – or even being told the song or the name of the song itself – she started singing “Seems Like Old Times”; the crowd went into a hush of unexpected delight – for the next 32 bars, you couldn’t so much as hear a cocktail being shaken or a potato being mashed.  As she softly and subtly wended her way through Carmen Lombardo’s 1946 song, absolutely nobody moved or spoke.  The clarinetist, who had already started dismantling his instrument before she began singing, now sat there in stunned silence continued for exactly half a beat before everybody in the room began standing up and applauding wildly.  As he left the bandstand, Woody Allen got up and said, “I better leave before I get my heart broken again!”

This beautiful young singer is Joan Bender, and since she sings as good as she looks it won’t be long before she breaks many hearts.  When I mention this she winces, “When I was 4 years old, my father told me I was a pretty girl and when I grew up I was going to be a heartbreaker.  I swore to him I would never do such a terrible thing and he laughed.  It turns out he’s right.  I hope to make up for it by mending broken hearts when I sing.”

Switching to a lighter topic, I inquire if Ms. Bender enjoyed Mr. Allen’s performance as much as he did her singing.  “Oh yes, he’s great!  I played clarinet classically for eight years, so I know that although when he plays it looks easy, it’s actually very hard.  When I played Mozart Sonatas I had sheet music to read from, but playing jazz by ear is much more difficult I think.”  As our conversation progresses about her musical training, she reveals her original desire was to play piano.  Yet, while some parents urge their children not to take up drums or trumpet or crank up rock music, Joan’s mother refused to allow her to take up piano or play any jazz music in the house.  Instead, she was permitted to play classical music on the clarinet, and subsequently played well enough to make the All-State band several years in a row during high school.  Her extensive music training adds a deeper layer to her singing, which is probably the reason many New York musicians respect her, and fans are intrigued.

Ms. Bender also has an unusual amount of stage presence that normally jazz singers with much more experience like Abbey Lincoln and Dianne Reeves possess.  Ms. Bender received recognition for her acting at state drama festivals and performed in numerous plays in Iowa and New York.  Even several years after a performance, a former high school state finalist who turned into a plus-size model and actress recognized her at a musical theatre audition and complimented her on her performance.  “I was shocked she even remembered me and she really made my day to compliment me on a performance I’d done several years ago.”

The multi-talented Bender won numerous academic and theatre scholarships to attend the University of Iowa on a full ride, after being unable to pursue her dream of attending Harvard on a track and field scholarship due to a hip injury.  (Yes, she was in state track and field competitions as well, specializing in the 3,000 meter race).  In college she majored in theatre, but on a lark joined choir.

It was through singing in college that Joan first began to feel at home within a musical community.  Friends and teachers exposed her to collections of jazz records, and for the first time she was able to hear a wide range of styles.  She fell in love with such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Stan Getz and also Brazilians such as Joao and Astrud Gilberto.  While there wasn’t a jazz vocal program at Iowa, Joan studied classical singing, and performed the works of Poulenc and Monteverdi in recital, which she also enjoyed and benefited from immensely.  Soon Ms. Bender was drifting away from being a theatre major, she recounts  “I loved acting, but I loved singing more.  Singing to me was an extension of acting.  There is nothing more moving than a beautiful melody.”

She arrived in New York with one suitcase and plans to pursue musical theatre, but then it dawned on her that jazz could be a full-time pursuit.  In college, Joan had heard a CD by the legendary Blossom Dearie, and when she got to New York, the first performer she went to see live was Blossom Dearie.  Hearing Dearie live only confirmed what Joan had learned from the records – that this was a great artist.  Joan immediately bought every piece of product Dearie was selling on the gigs, and Dearie was intrigued by this young girl who was so taken by her work.  Blossom took Joan to dinner, and the two have been friends ever since.

Since she arrived in New York, Joan has been performing all over the city, both on informal occasions and on formal gigs.  Some of the venues where she’s sang include: Blue Note, Sweet Basil’s, Café Carlyle, the Cutting Room, Rue B, The Bitter End, Irving Plaza, the New Age Cabaret, The Rainbow Room, C-Note, Lickety Split in Harlem, Cleopatra’s Needle and Small’s.  She even sang for Liza Minnelli in a west village cabaret when she worked as a coat check girl.  Ms. Bender recounts the scenario, “It was very exciting to see her there, but the staff at the cabaret were trying to be nonchalant about it and act like her coming in wasn’t a big deal.  They weren’t very good at pretending!  I didn’t try to be cool and instead of ignoring her asked if she had any requests.  She was so sweet, she said ‘Any song that’s your favorite!’  So I sang for her one of my favorites at the time “The Way You Look Tonight.”  It was really fun.”

In addition to her usual jazz gigs, which consist of a mixture of standards, originals and bossa novas, Joan has also put together three different, fully-scripted cabaret shows. At Danny’s Skylight Room she presented an evening of songs by Michel LeGrand, and also did a program based on the concept of musical astrology – performing songs associated with star singers born under each zodiac sign.  (Joan happily discovered, while planning for the show, that she was born on the same day as Annie Ross.)  She pointed out, for instance, that Frank Sinatra, Bob Dorough, Dionne Warwick and Joe Williams were born on the 12th of December.  At the BMW Café, Joan produced and starred in an Equity Cabaret presentation of the music of Duke Ellington. In addition to her New York performances, Miss Bender has performed abroad in Paris at Le Petit Journal and Le Balle Au Bond.

Joan is also an activist in the cause of women's rights in the music world, and organized the first protest of the policies of Jazz at Lincoln Center with regards to the hiring of women (or lack thereof) in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Cites Bender, "Some people misunderstood what the rally meant and thought of it as an attack against Wynton Marsalis. If we didn't like Wynton, why would we want to play with him in the band then? It is true Wynton decides who gets to be in the band, and we hope he will consider our message, as well as every other bandleader in the country! Our message is that women musicians, be it if they're a trumpet player or saxophone player, want to be included in the world of professional big bands and jazz everywhere. We held a rally at the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's fifth annual benefit gala because it was appropriate. We wanted the donors, the public and the LCJO to think about why women are still not part of this very prestigious band. We are hoping that since Jazz at Lincoln Center has accepted $20 million dollars in state taxpayers funds, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Doris Duke Foundation and other female donors, that this problem will be addressed. It was stupid that for decades bands were segregated by race, and it's just as stupid for bands to be segregated by gender." The protest was extensively written up in such jazz industry publications as Jazziz and Jazz Times, in the latter of which she was profiled by the legendary music-and-politics columnist Nat Hentoff. 

Joan lives in New York with her two room-mates, Lucky, a charismatic shephard collie and Oreo, an extremely large and friendly black and white cat.  She is equally fond of jazz, cabaret and Brazilian music.  Her debut album "Star Eyes" contains songs from all these genres and original tunes as well.  After hearing the album, one of the top commercial photographers in New York, Andrew Eccles, decided he wanted to photograph Bender.  The last jazz musician Eccles photographed was Joshua Redman.  Backed by an all-star band, including Jimmy Wormworth, best known as a member of the rhythm section of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Joan Bender is clearly on her way.

 

Joan Bender
Joan@joanbender.com
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