The Jazz Ambassador of the West Side

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Singers from all over the world trek to open mic night at Cleopatra’s Needle -- and many of the are there to see one man


  • The interior of Cleopatra's Needle, on Broadway between 92nd and 93rd streets

  • Keith Ingham, a Cleopatra regular, has been nominated for a Grammy three times

“Singers get so close to the essence of a song—you really learn how it’s meant to be done. I’ve always loved working with singers.”

Happily for Keith Ingham, the thrice-Grammy nominated British-born pianist (Benny Goodman; Roy Eldridge; Ben Webster), arranger and accompanist (Peggy Lee; Rebecca Kilgore; Susannah McCorkle, to whom he was married), he’s gotten to do exactly that every Sunday for the last five years, merely by strolling a few blocks from his Upper West Side flat and sitting down to play at his home away from home—New York City jazz fixture Cleopatra’s Needle, on Broadway between 92nd and 93rd streets.

But the pleasure is hardly his alone. For Cleopatra’s, whose charms include daily happy hours, affordable Mideastern food, and the absence of a cover charge, is a vocalist’s mecca, to which jazz-worshipping pilgrims across a wide variety of geographic, skill and octave ranges trek Sundays, Mondays and/or Wednesdays to sing with a world-class trio.

Take Sundays, when the sidemen are drummer Arnie Wise (Antonio Carlos Jobim; Bill Evans) and bassist Bob Arkin, whose varied credits include being an alumnus—along with the late, great jazz drummer Paul Motian—of Arlo Guthrie’s opening-night gig at Woodstock.

Mondays and Wednesdays, singers are accompanied by the stellar pianists Jon Weiss and Les Kurtz and their equally stellar trios (onetime Ellingtonian Steve Little is Kurtz’s drummer). The subs are likely to be stellar, too: On a recent Arkin-less Sunday, the “fill-in” was Ron McClure (a sideman for Charles Lloyd, Lee Konitz and many other jazz luminaries). And things sparkle the rest of the week as well, with featured instrumentalists and an open mic for players.

But Cleopatra’s Needle would sparkle a bit less had Keith Ingham’s passion and talent not been a match for the obstacles he faced. When he was seven, his postwar-Britain-poor, jazz-disdaining parents (his father called it “devil’s music”) put an abrupt end to his lessons the day he shared with them the news his piano teacher had just laid on him over his scales: “They’re here, you know, they’ve landed in their UFOs—the Martians are amongst us.”

But young Keith was determined, and, helped along by his 78s, his radio, and Fats Waller, “the first jazz pianist I ever heard,” he taught himself to play—wonderfully.

“Coming to New York to hear the music became my ambition,” he remembers. In the 60s, Ingham would hire out as a ship’s musician on transatlantic liners to New York, taking small bites of the Apple but, though slowly being seduced by it, always returning to London. Finally, in 1978, realizing he was hooked, and heeding the advice of Benny Carter, he flew to New York to stay. And before long the seduction was mutual.

Another of his ambitions was “to meet the songwriters I idolized. The songwriters are my heroes, because without them there wouldn’t be anything to play. A lot of what Charlie Parker and other bebop players wrote was based on standards like ‘I Got Rhythm’ or ‘Cherokee’ or ‘How High the Moon.’ Think of ‘All the Things You Are,’ the number of times that chord sequence has been used. So meeting the songwriters in New York was wonderful.”

And made for wonderful memories. In 1987, “I did this album of Jule Styne songs with Maxine Sullivan. Jule loved the CD, and when it came out he threw a party at his apartment on Fifth Avenue. At one point he turns to me and says, ‘You see those paintings up on my wall? They were painted by George Gershwin; Ira’s widow gave them to me.’ Five minutes later the phone rings. He comes back and says, ‘That was Irving Berlin, asking how I’m doing.’ So here I am with Jule Styne, one of the major songwriters, and then here’s these other characters coming in. I thought I was in heaven.”

Now, an old pro himself, Ingham is giving singers—the core group of about 25 (many of them with ever-growing credits) and the out-of-towners, the veterans and the newbies, the hope-to-bes and the just-having-funs—a boost toward their own heavens. And even when they might not be creating heavenly music, he’s in their corner. “They make a good attempt, and you know they’re trying. They’re very dedicated: They come week after week—sometimes from Florida, or California, or Europe. If it gives them pleasure, and they’ve been waiting (for their number to come up on the sign-up sheet, allowing them two songs), you want to let them sing. When you think back, the great singers like Ella or Sarah Vaughan, when they had a trio behind them, man, that was it. So that’s what we’re trying to do, in our own small way, is just try to give these people as good a shot as possible.”

At Cleopatra’s, the respect is mutual—and then some. The words you hear the club’s patrons most often use in describing what it’s like to sing at the mic with Ingham and his trio are “privileged,” “thrilled” and “honored.”

On a recent Sunday, this writer was one of those people. Out of kindness to the audience, I limited myself to one song (“Melancholy Baby”), in a key that, after we did a quick run-through at the piano, Ingham suggested might work for me.

It went well. Sure enough, he’d found the (possibly only) key that was entirely within my narrow range.

“So,” Ingham says with satisfaction, “here we are at Cleo’s every Sunday from four til eight (and not infrequently closer to nine), playing a lot of these good tunes and trying to keep them alive; that’s why we so enjoy the gig.”

And that’s why he says, “I’m just happy to work around New York,” and why these days he only occasionally spreads his wings beyond his cozy love nest to do concerts, most recently in Cleveland, where in September he played at the Allegheny Jazz Party.

And where the festival producers, audiences, and those who shared the stage with him were privileged, thrilled and honored that he was there.

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