Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap: It’s a Family Affair

I had a lovely conversation with Sandy Stewart last night on my WPKN radio show. I’ve been a host at the listener-supported Bridgeport, Connecticut station for 40 years, which is incredible to think about. I started as a college senior.

Charlap and Stewart (2)Sandy is both peerless pianist Bill Charlap’s mother and his singing partner on three albums, the most recent of them being the great duets record Something to Remember. Music was in the family—Broadway composers gathered at their Manhattan apartment, because one of Stewart’s husbands was Morris “Moose” Charlap, who wrote the music for Peter Pan.

“Moose was always composing around the house, and Bill was drawn to piano at three years old,” Stewart told me. “He never treated the piano as a toy, he just automatically put his finger down, one key at a time. Moose and I looked at each other and said, “Something may happen here.”

It did. Bill became one of the most sought-after pianists in the jazz world, and his brother, Tom, became a bass player. And Sandy began singing with Bill, initially on a 1993 family album with Tom also on bass. They’ve made two others since, but you really want Something to Remember in your collection.

The repertoire is, needless to say, the Great American Songbook. “We’re very excited because we get to do what we always do, which is performing the songs we both love,” Stewart said. “I’m just very fortunate to have the best accompanist in the whole world.”

I asked Stewart what was in the air that made that music, composed mostly in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s, so indelible. “We’re very fortunate it did happen, because all these great songs are easily transposed to jazz,” Stewart said. “We have it forever. Younger musicians like my son are carrying the torch for this great music.”

As a singer, Stewart’s influences are Ella Fitzgerald (you can hear that), Peggy Lee (that, too), Lena Horne, Judy Garland and Sarah Vaughan. Her style is a unique distillation and, like she said, there’s that perfect accompanist. I’ve always admired Charlap’s ability to fit into a huge variety of jazz projects, from intimate duets like this to the hardest-swinging bop and post-bop. He’s aces, and if you want an embarrassment of riches, check out Double Portrait, his album with his piano-playing wife Renee Rosnes (also a major player).

Charlap leads a six-night Jazz in July series at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, and Sandy Stewart will be part of that next summer. If they’re playing anywhere else around, I’ll let you know.