She studies my list. “I don't like imitations.” She points to a song on the left. “How about 'The Nearness of You'?”
We get right into it. I'm doing my fabulous breath-control thing, singing the first eight bars without coming up for air.
Ms. Cook's eyes bug.
“Uh, why don't you try it a bit lower?” she says. “And don't hold your breath so much.”
This time I channel Billie Holiday with a little Chet Baker. Ms. Cook stops me.
“You let these phrases run together in a way you wouldn't do at all in conversation,” she says.
“Oh.” I decide not to tell her that's my specialty, my jazz heritage, my technique. So I say: “I grew up on jazz. It was almost as if the voice were an instrument and not about the meaning of the words. Do you ever scat?”
“No. It's not what I do. My God, Ella, that's in her bones. It's not in my bones. I sing soulful ballads as well as anybody's ever done them, you know? That's what's really the meat of my talent, I think.”
She thinks? Barbara Cook has won every award available to a lyric soprano who sings the American songbook. She triumphed as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein's Candide. She owns “I've Got the World on a String.” She is widely considered the grande dame of cabaret. Her evening of song, Mostly Sondheim, played to packed houses internationally. Barbara Cook was the first woman invited to sing pop tunes in concert at the Metropolitan Opera. She's recorded 19 solo albums and sung for four presidents. The New York Times calls her voice transcendent.
“That song,” she says. “How does it begin, sweetie?”
She sings “The Nearness of You” looking me in the eye. I am speechless. I almost blurt “Wow!” What to say? Who knew that song could touch so deep?
“Now, that doesn't come out of anything other than memory,” Ms. Cook breaks the silence.
“You're saying that amount of feeling is accessible to everyone?”
“I've been in love a lot of times,” Ms. Cook says. “Yeah. So that's what you use.”
I've been in love a lot of times, too. I'm rarely not in love. Does that show in my voice? Does Ms. Cook love more profoundly than I do? My first husband used to turn on the radio when I sang.
“Are you sure you wouldn't like to hear my Jimmy Durante?”
“I don't want to hear you do impersonations. I want the authentic you. Durante doesn't have a wonderful voice. But when he sings, you're moved. He sings in tune, and he has a great sense of rhythm. You must remember this,“ Ms. Cook does Durante singing “As Time Goes By.” She doesn't do his gruffness, just his timing and sincerity.
“And he doesn't hold the note, and it doesn't matter.” She demonstrates: "A kiss is just a kiss...."
“It's about the ability to be true to yourself and communicate that truth. As an audience, you know immediately whether you believe somebody or not. Don't you?"
“Um-hmm,” I say. It's clear I'm not going to get to do Durante's “You Gotta Start Off Each Day with a Song” or my much-in-demand “Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man” à la Helen Morgan.
Have I come here to find out what Barbara Cook thinks of my voice? Did I come to see if I could entertain a great entertainer? Nope. I'm here because I love to sing. Singing makes me happy. Or, when I'm happy, I sing. And if I can learn to sing better from Barbara Cook, I'd be nuts not to try.
I launch into “The Nearness of You” again. This time I interrupt me.