Jazz Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Singing Inside Out

The adventurous Murray Hill resident takes his toys very seriously

For all that, the best introduction to his work might be either of two ambitious Winter & Winter concept albums with the Japanese pianist and arranger Fumio Yasuda, both of which present Bleckmann singing at least somewhat familiar material more or less conventionally—albeit in German for most of Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile. Though recorded in 2006, that album of songs by Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and other Weimar composers grew out of a concert Bleckmann presented at Joe's Pub to welcome the 2004 Republican National Convention to New York—"But no Republicans came, so I was preaching to the choir," he recalled. "Political music is usually very muscular and aggressive, as well it should be at times. But I wanted to show that music like this can be done without shouting, because usually it's done very theatrically and very, very BIG—and I wanted it to be more subtle and personal."

2004's Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne is even subtler—and possibly Bleckmann's most autobiographical recording, even though only the reverie that opens and closes the album is his. Apolitical taken at face value, this collection of songs from Broadway and Hollywood musicals showed that all song is potentially transgressive: That Bleckmann is gay and unambiguously out is irrelevant to most of his work, but singing Rodgers & Hammerstein and the like, he flaunted a secret never fully acknowledged (if not exactly kept under tight wraps) by generations of gay men dependent on female surrogates to deliver their love songs for them. "It has occurred to me that 'We Kiss in a Shadow,' for example, could be heard as being about a gay love affair," he says. "But that's only a part of it. Those songs have larger personal meaning for me."

For starters, they represent childhood memories of watching American musicals on German TV. "I would lock everyone out of the TV room, close the curtains if it was during the day—it was usually Sunday afternoon—and absolutely forbid my parents and my older brother to come in or make any noise in the kitchen," he recalls. People who dislike movie musicals often complain that watching characters speak one moment and burst into song the next is disorienting; they don't get that those characters are understood to be singing inside—expressing their innermost feelings in the private language of song. Imagine how disorienting it could have been for Bleckmann, hearing dialogue dubbed into German give way to songs sung in their original English. "But it didn't matter to me at all, because the stories and settings were already so divorced from any reality I knew that I happily accepted anything."

"Why am I doing this, at this precise moment?"
John Rogers
"Why am I doing this, at this precise moment?"
More than a gadgeteer
John Rogers
More than a gadgeteer

A soprano soloist in church choirs as a preadolescent, he threw himself into ice dancing when his voice began to change. By the time he began singing again, in his late teens, he'd developed a passion for jazz: In 1987, he traveled 15 hours by train to Austria to audition for Jordan, who was beginning a three-month teaching residency at the Graz Conservatory. "I sang Charlie Parker's 'Confirmation' for her, using her lyrics, although I didn't know they were hers," he says. "For Sheila to like me was so important because all the vocal jazz I'd heard was very loud and aggressive, all about muscle and power, and I didn't feel I had a place in jazz if that's all there was. But the way Sheila sings, the way she teaches and the way she is, opened up so many possibilities for me, being so joyful and gentle and incredibly moving."

"I recognized Theo as someone with a need to sing, like me," Jordan says now. The doyenne of veteran female jazz singers and a tireless mother hen to younger ones, both male and female, Jordan told Bleckmann he belonged in New York, offering him the use of her Chelsea apartment while she was on the road or at her country home upstate, and using her connections to get him into the Manhattan School of Music and City University. "Theo is my baby, like a son or grandson," she says. "There was a point, a few years ago, where I thought, 'Oh, my! He's leaving jazz and moving into another thing altogether,' and I may have questioned that. But it was OK, because he was developing something completely original, and jazz will continue to be part of it. Theo's being true to himself, and that takes a lot of courage. Not everybody digs everything he does yet. But you know what? They will."

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