For Jane Monheit, it is a feat to book a concert on the East End — despite her pair of Grammy nods, her reputation in the worlds of jazz and cabaret, and her status as a Long Island native.
None of those matter, she said, when there isn’t a home for jazz in the Hamptons.
“There are very few opportunities to play out there for jazz musicians. I have a show out there once every couple years, if that,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m in New York City constantly, but never on the island. So this is a very rare opportunity.”
The cool-toned chanteuse is referring to her headlining performance as part of the Sag Harbor American Music Festival on Friday night at the coveted Old Whalers’ Church — a venue fit for a jazz revolution, she said, aided by her silky phrasing and knack for storytelling.
“Jazz is a huge, important part of American culture, and it’s one of the only true American musics, created by black Americans out of their suffering,” she said. “It’s an intense cultural legacy, and I think it’s not nearly respected enough in our country. I really don’t.
“I’d love to see it grow, I’d love to see it become more of a cultural force, and represented more truly as what it actually is, which is historically black music.”
Monheit’s first taste of jazz came by way of her grandmother, whom she visited daily at her home in Bellmore. She would play the great vocalists — Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday — before sending the young girl on her way to her childhood home in Oakdale.
There, music was like breathing air. Between her mother’s love of original Broadway cast recordings and her father’s “insane” five-string finger picking on his banjo and guitar, Monheit began to develop her own sound — an even split of the Great American Songbook and American folk music, with a dash of the Piano Man for good measure.
“My influences were really coming from the jazz world, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t Billy Joel’s biggest fan, because I am,” she said. “When you’re from Long Island, you just understand he is our deity and we worship him.”
While none of her family members pursued music professionally, there was never any question that she would.
“I literally never did anything else, ever. I never even babysat,” Monheit said. “I’ve never had another job except to sing. That’s how singular the focus was. My parents were way into it. I was very lucky to have full familial support.”
Monheit went on to study voice at the Manhattan School of Music with Peter Eldridge, a founding member of the vocal group New York Voices. There, she graduated with honors in 1999, received the William H. Borden Award for outstanding accomplishment in jazz, and met her husband, drummer Rick Montalbano. They married in Westhampton Beach and lived in New York before moving to Los Angeles three years ago.
“I would love to see more jazz on Long Island in the future. That would be something that would make me happy,” she said. “It’s just nice to get to go home and sing.”
And she’s definitely at home on the East End where, as a child, Monheit spent most of her summertime weekends sunbathing and fishing with her family.
“I’m a fisherman’s daughter. We were out there all the time at the marina in Shinnecock,” she recalled. “We kept a big ol’ boat there and my dad’s a fisherman, and we were just covered with salt water all the time, and it was great. I loved it. It meant the beach and the boat and fishing, the scrambling around on jetties and all of that.”
Now, at age 41, the nostalgia lingers as Monheit brings a jazz program to Sag Harbor with her longtime accompanist Michael Kanan, who is “the kind of friend everyone should be so lucky to have, the kind of friend who I never doubt will be together with me until the end of our lives,” she said.
While the set list is yet to be determined — she writes it the day of the concert — she anticipates a range of warm-hearted, charming swingers to ultra drama.
“Definitely everyone who comes to this show should probably consider stashing a tissue in their purses,” she warned. “There will be ballads.”
But above all, Monheit aims to shine a light on an all-too-often neglected genre in American music history — the very same music that she lives and breathes, born from a legacy that is never lost on her.
“It’s always important, right now I think more than ever, to recognize, respect and honor the contributions people of color have made to our culture and our society,” she said. “American life would be nothing without the influx of culture from around the world. It’s who we are; it’s what we’re based on. We came here and corrupted what was actually going on. I really feel it is so important, especially for us white musicians, to have deep respect, knowledge and honor for this tradition, and to share it with people.”
Jane Monheit will perform on Friday, September 27, at 8 p.m. at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, 44 Union Street, as part of the ninth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival. Tickets are $35. For more information and a full festival lineup, which continues through Sunday, September 29, visit sagharbormusic.org.