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Blancmange, Anyone?

Daryl Sherman entertains John Robert Brown.

"What's a blancmange? I never heard of it," asks Daryl Sherman. "It's a white milky pudding that wobbles," I tell her.
"Do I sound like that?"

We're sitting in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, the hotel where Cole Porter lived from 1939 to1964. Porter's Steinway now stands in the Cocktail Terrace. These days, the piano is played by Daryl Sherman. This afternoon she's spending her pre-gig moments with me, pondering over some reviews of her recent CD.

"This one thinks I'm ninety years old!" Though the 'blancmange' comparison baffles, the misconception about young Daryl's age is easily explained. In the early 1980s Daryl sang with the Artie Shaw band, led by Dick Johnson. Daryl's association with Shaw (Artie is 93 this year) has led the reviewer to assume that Daryl sang with the bandleader during the Swing Era. His review moves her birth date forward half a century or so.

"I'm starting to think that maybe that's good. Maybe I should lie about my age the other way?" She reads: 'Sensuous maturity that is irresistibly sexy. A Million-Dollar Baby is charged with subdued lustiness.' She smiles.

How much attention does she pay to reviews?

"I'm just happy if anyone is writing about me, spelling the name right, mentioning the CD."

As we sit chatting, a small group of enthusiasts begins to gather on the Cocktail Terrace. Daryl makes introductions. The fact that I'm from Britain is a conversation starter. "I love coming to Britain," says Daryl. "Each time I go over there it just gets better. We tend to think that British people have a little more reserve, in the way that they carry themselves, how they show emotions and enthusiasm. Yet I find in my experiences of British friends much more outgoing behaviour than one would think.

"We might have, here in the land of Yahoos, a more physically demonstrative display. Sometimes these days it's so much to excess, with the standing ovations that become meaningless. We're so used to that here that when you go over to Britain, even though they haven't jumped up, screamed whooped and yelled it doesn't mean that they don't enjoy it.

"I had a particular evening at The Pizza on The Park where the energy of the room was seemingly down. You wonder, 'Oh, my gosh. Am I really going over like a lead balloon here? I think I'm singing okay, but gee, what is this?'

"But afterwards I had more people come over to me, privately, and say, 'Oh we loved that.' I sold more CDs that night. Sometimes it's the opposite. People whoop and yell. Then they run out!

"A colleague of mine, Jay Leonhart, has a song called The Couple From Duluth, where he describes singing and playing his heart out. There's a couple sitting right in front of him. The guy is playing with his hair. The wife is trimming her nails. They're looking everywhere but at him. He thinks: 'They hate me. They're going to be leaving any minute.'

Afterwards they tell him how much they loved him. They're coming back the very next night!

"I don't sing it; I probably should."

Daryl is a thorough musician. The last time I was here, I watched as a listener handed her a couple of pages of music, an original song. She put it on the piano and proceeded to read it at sight, perfectly. I ask her about the challenges of accompanying one's own singing.

"People ask which came first. When I was a tot, two years old, my father - who's a musician - would come home from a weekend gig and get me out of the crib to sing for the company. So I think of myself as a singer first. But I started playing piano at an early age. It was mostly in service of wanting to sing. My father sat me down at the piano, taught me how to form triads. At that time he had something called Tunedex. It had the melody of the song printed out with the chord changes and the words. That's how I passed the rest of my childhood. I went through whatever we had, fake books or Broadway folios. Later I studied classical piano.

"I didn't have a model of someone who sang and played. I don't think, growing up in Rhode Island, that there was anybody who actually did that locally. My idea of a singer was mostly Ella, a little bit of Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley and Carmen. In my mind I was a band singer, but the piano was, for me, the band.

"It just evolved. You learn more about conversing. Your ideas grow, whether about music or life. The stories of lyrics became more and more important as I grew older. I truly started to understand what some of these songs were really about. For me, the conversational approach was the way, epitomised by people like Sylvia Syms. She was quite a mentor to me.

"And then, when I finally got to see Blossom Dearie in person, it was a revelation to see how she accompanied herself. I learned about the connection between having a thought for a song, then continuing the mood pianistically with a little motif, with these incredibly beautiful, magical, voicings, that only sound that way when she plays them.

"You can have this conversation with yourself. Nobody can better anticipate your phrasing, what you're going to sing, than you can."

At the intermission a piano technician arrives. Cole Porter's Steinway needs attention. Daryl chats to the accompaniment of tuning and testing.

"There's a note missing," Daryl confides. "The Bb above middle C. It seems to be in every key! I keep forgetting. I try playing in sharp keys: it still comes up." She laughs.

This afternoon the songs include Pretty Eyed Baby, The Things We Did Last Summer, I'm Just a Lucky So and So, Nancy With the Laughing Face, June Night. There was also some Cole Porter, naturally, and a thoughtful surprise for me, Hey John, written by Blossom Dearie for John Lennon, who would drop in to Ronnie Scott's to hear her.

"Songwriting is the aspect of myself that I least exploit," says Daryl. "At the moment I'm not a disciplined songwriter. I admire people like Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, who sat down every morning to write. In the back of my mind I have the goal of writing a musical version of Joseph Conrad's novel Victory, to be called Tropical Belt.

"I always loved Victory, with its raffish characters. It's a bit of a morality play. I've written a bunch of songs with that in mind. But it never quite gets finished, though Dick Katz has recorded one of the songs, Samburan.

"I had a song recorded by Freddie Cole for British Decca: The Girl From the Piano Bar. I won a prize in a songwriting contest with a song called Rachomono, the title of a prayer that is only used on Jewish holidays. I'm rather eclectic!"

Daryl returns to the piano. She plays and sings. People pass beneath the Cocktail Terrace, hurrying quietly through the Waldorf between Park Avenue and Lexington, while I listen, tucking into my sandwiches, scones, jam and cream, with a pot of Earl Grey. No blancmange.

Visit Daryl Sherman's website

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