Live Music: A Jimmy McHugh Celebration at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

The subtitle for this splendid program of song at Vitello’s Wednesday night was “A Salute to Black History Month.”  And both the title and the subtitle were right on target.  The performance was dedicated to selections from the extraordinary song catalog of Jimmy McHugh – who is surely one of the least acknowledged major composers in the Great American Songbook.  And the Black History salute was directly linked via McHugh’s songwriting for Harlem’s 1920’s Cotton Club revues and the all-black Broadway musical, Blackbirds of 1928 (which included one of McHugh’s classics, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”).

John Proulx

Although the real star of the evening was, of course, McHugh, the singing – by pianist/vocalist John Proulx, Sherry Williams and Deana Martin (backed by the sturdy support of bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe LaBarbera) – brought entertaining illumination to the songs.  And it was full testimony to the timeless appeal of McHugh’s works that they provided unique inspiration to the individual styles of each singer.

Proulx, who put the program together, has been emerging as one of the present jazz scene’s rare – too rare – male singer/instrumentalists.  Like John Pizzarelli, his performances are enriched by authentic credibility in both those areas.  “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “I Just Found Out About Love” were delivered with a solid rhythmic groove.  On “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” Proulx scatted in unison with his piano lines, calling up similarities to Pizzarelli’s jazz and guitar improvisations. “Too Young To Go Steady” had just the right amount of teen-aged angst.  And “Let’s Get Lost” suggested cool, laid-back Chet Baker-inspired phrasing.  (The song was included in Proulx’s Baker tribute album, Baker’s Dozen.)

Sherry Williams

Williams’ honey-rich voice was at its best on a jaunty “Exactly Like You” and a beautifully lyrical reading of the soaring melody McHugh wrote for “Where Are You.”

Proulx and Williams then teamed up for one of the evening’s highlights, a close harmonized “I’m In The Mood For Love” and a rock-tinged “On The Sunny Side of the Street.”

Deana Martin

Special guest Deana Martin, who is McHugh’s goddaughter, added her own, uniquely expressive version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and a delightful interpretation of the McHugh and Dorothy Fields version of “I Won’t Dance,” recalling the song’s dynamic presence in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers version of Roberta.

That’s a lot of songs for one night club set.  But Jimmy McHugh’s musical accomplishments were so profuse – over 279 songs and five Academy Award nominations — that one could easily mention a dozen of his memorable songs that didn’t make it into the program.

Several members of the McHugh family, including his granddaughter, Judy McHugh Larkin – who initiated the celebration — were present for the performance.  Hopefully, Judy can be encouraged to plan another evening of McHugh’s music, including some of his lesser known but equally listenable songs, for a future program.  May 23, the 108th anniversary of his birth, would be a good date to do it.

Photos by Bob Barry.  To see more of Bob’s Jazzography, click HERE.

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