Close your eyes. Think of your favorite movie musical from the 1930s – perhaps Top Hat or Isn’t it Romantic. It is a woman’s voice you hear, melodically and confidently singing. There is even some witty on-stage banter with her band. The feel is of an old-time movie, or having traveled back in time to a New York supper club from that era.
Only a few performers in New Orleans can recreate that sense of time and place, and the city is lucky to have its own Banu Gibson.
Gibson began performing professionally when she was in her teens, originally as a dancer. She worked for comedian, actor and musician Jackie Gleason at his Joe the Bartender room in Miami, where her fellow performers and audience members included Woody Allen, Art Carney, Cary Grant – all the big stars of the day. It was there that she was exposed to traditional and Dixieland jazz.
She landed in New Orleans in 1973, when her then-husband-to-be got a job at Tulane University. For a while, until ’77, she commuted between New Orleans and California, where she performed at Disneyland in “The Class of ’27” show. Her band, the New Orleans Hot Jazz, came together in ’81, and she hasn’t stopped performing her signature blend of Great American Songbook standards from the ’20s –’40s.
What else can you learn about Gibson? She can play a banjo and guitar. She even braved performing in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day many years ago. She also shares an astrological sign with the city – Scorpio – as she says she’s heard that cities have signs.
And while she may seem ubiquitous in New Orleans with her vivacious personality and retro flair, Gibson is often on the road performing, selectively choosing her New Orleans dates. As luck would have it this month, Gibson will be performing at two festivals where she’s been a regular since the 1980s: the French Quarter Festival, April 8, in Jackson Square; and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, May 5, in the Economy Hall tent.
Age: The oldest I’ve been as of today Born/Raised: Born in Dayton, Ohio; moved to Hollywood, Fla., when I was 8; moved to New York City when I was 21. Family: Husband, Buzz Podewell, who’s part of the theater faculty at Tulane University and the award-winning author of Shakespeare’s Watch; daughter, Jessica Podewell, adjunct theater faculty at Tulane University; and David Podewell, who’s happy not to be in the acting business! Education: Associate of arts degree in theater and music from a college in Florida, then attended Tulane, but work got in the way of me completing my music degree.
Favorite book: I like biographies of people in the arts. I got some for Christmas about Sarah Bernhardt and Diaghilev. Right now I’m reading Bryan Batt’s She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother. Favorite movie: Too many to list, but Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) is high on my list, as is any Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] movie. Favorite food: Is expensive champagne considered a food group?
Favorite restaurant: Domilise’s, Clementine’s Belgian Bistrot, Coquette, Stein’s, Camellia Grill and Stella! Favorite music (or what would I find in you car’s stereo): Django Reinhardt or classical music, but lots of the time just silence. It is so noisy in the world today. Favorite musician: Too many, but I’ll say Fats Waller. Hobby: Who has time? Favorite vacation spot: Paris
How and when did you start performing? I was 3 when I started dance school and I sang as a child in the school choir and church chorus. I was a soprano as a kid, but could hear harmony, so they switched me. I’m an alto now, yet still have an upper register, but I don’t use it a lot.
My first two professional jobs were dancing. My third professional job was singing and dancing, but when we started touring we kept on getting booked at these tiny spaces so there was no room to dance and the job evolved into mostly singing.
What have been your musical influences? I would have to say it’s a decade: the 1930s. I’m a big fan of Fred Astaire and Shirley Temple, especially the film in which she performs with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (The Little Colonel, 1935).
When I was living in New York City, I started hearing original music from the 1920s, such as Fats Waller. That opened a whole new world to me – most of the stuff I was exposed to as a kid was the ’50s version of what the ’20s was, like the movie Singin’ in the Rain.
[Overall,] I would say songs from the Great American Songbook.
What composers make up the Great American Songbook? I would say it started in the late teens through the 1950s, covering people such as Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael – and a plethora of other ones. It was the golden age of songwriting.
Which one of these composers’ works is a particular favorite to perform? That’s like asking which one of your children do you like better! But, I just did the Gershwin show, so I’m really attracted to both Gershwins. I really love Ira’s lyrics and George’s music. I have also done a Rodgers and Hart show, and Lorenz Hart lyrics are heart-wrenching and sad, but are also so witty. I’d have to say his are my favorite lyrics.
If you could travel back in time, with whom would you perform? I’ve “time traveled” in a way for something I would have liked to see, such as the show Girl Crazy in 1930, when Ethel Merman made her stage debut and it made her a star. The musical was by both Gershwins, and the orchestra pit [band] was composed of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa [and] Jack Teagarden, to name just a few.
But if I was to perform with anyone, it would have to be Fats Waller.
Do you have a set of different shows to draw from? I’m doing a songbook series of shows – one of the best shows we put together was one at Le Chat Noir [in New Orleans] about songwriter Johnny Mercer. Mercer’s life is so interesting; I read Phillip Furia’s biography, Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, and so many of the songs are so much deeper after you read it. He had an affair with Judy Garland and the song, “I Remember You” was about Garland. Here are some lyrics:
When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of it all
Then I will tell them I remember, tell them I remember
Tell them I remember you
Is that not gorgeous? When he passed away his wife, Ginger, put together a compilation of his songs, but she didn’t put that song in it because she knew it was about Judy.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what advice would you give to a woman performer? Nothing you could print – my advice comes very colorfully. [However,] I guess the most important thing is to know what you’re doing.
What makes you stay in New Orleans (you travel a lot for your job)? When I moved to New York City originally I was touring with a band, and everywhere we went was exactly the same, except New Orleans. I had been here before, when I was in high school and my mother took a friend and me on a trip. We went to all the bars and clubs, like the My-Oh-My Club. My mother loved show business, and while anyone would have been yanking their kid out of those places she was, “Oh, look at that costume.”
What I realized is that every place else in the United States is white bread and mayonnaise, and everything here is not – it’s spicy and the architecture is so different. You can’t control where you were born, but you have a choice where you live!
What’s the difference between performing at the French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival? I guess in one sense, there’s more similarities for the type of audience, but there seems to be a little more energy at French Quarter Festival only because they are moving – there’s not as many places to sit down as Jazz Fest. There are more people dancing in front of you, as opposed to Jazz Fest when they dance off at the side. And we always close out the day at Jazz Fest, so everyone is pretty tired.
True Confession: Actually, I’m not a bad cook. My signature dish is eggs Benedict.