How does vocalist/pianist Carole Lynne focus on singing and playing wonderful classic jazz, songs like “Peel Me a Grape,” “Stolen Moments,” and “Good Morning Heartache,” when the crowd in a restaurant or lounge gets clamorous?
True, many friends and fans come to see and listen to her, and they clap enthusiastically as she finishes and thanks the audience. But often there is so much else going on.
Still, thanks to her Zen-like concentration, Lynne creates live music with style and grace.
Before Lynne begins, she puts herself into visualization or meditation mode, where “you almost picture in your mind what that song is about,” she says, adding that tuning into the feeling of a song is essential. “If I can’t feel a song, I won’t do it. If I can’t feel it, I can’t put it across, and people know when you don’t have feeling, when you’re not into it.”
Lynne’s flexible voice has a wide range, and, much like song stylist Anita O’Day’s voice, possesses just a touch of sensual huskiness. With a special quality of resonance in the lower octave, Lynne delivers a song with precise intonation, as well as the rhythm and phrasing of someone who has listened to jazz standards carefully and lovingly — someone who has this music in their DNA.
You can catch Lynne and her many musical friends at Jester’s European Cafe in Bordentown the first three Saturdays of each month, including November 12 and 19; and December 3, 10, and 17. She is also often at the Salt Creek Grille in Princeton Forrestal Village — next performance there Friday, November 11 — and has also been performing at the Witherspoon Grill in Princeton for years: look for her there on Tuesday, December 27.
She also keeps a busy schedule by day, giving private piano lessons from her home studio in Bordentown Township.
Lynne has been playing at Jester’s the longest, almost 10 years, and regularly shares the performance space in the Bordentown bistro with bassist Nick Palmer and John Sheridan on guitar. However, once a month she brings in personnel she calls “Philadelphia’s best,” folks like Larry McKenna on tenor sax, and the venerable Sonny Troy on guitar.
“I like to mix things up,” she says. “Sometimes I bring in Jerry Topinka on guitar, (he’s also the music director at the Salt Creek Grille), guitarist Bob Smith of the Bob Smith Trio, and Steve Burke on bass. You never know who is going to stop in.”
Lynne mentions that Troy, one of the Philadelphia region’s finest guitarists, was a friend of her late father, pianist Richard Cherubini. During his long career Cherubini played with the likes of Duke Ellington, Gerry Mulligan, and Rosemary Clooney, and Lynne says he was still performing in the last decade of his life at the former Cafe Gallery in Burlington, when he was in his 80s.
In fact, she coached her father to do more and more singing, expanding on his elegant phrasing to better project his voice.
“He had a soft voice, and I gave him some lessons so he would project more, and he got really good, really pushed the air into his words and his breathing,” Lynne says. “He loved Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and could always phrase.”
At one time Cherubini was part of an ensemble called the Edgar Allen Poe Quartet that eventually became the ’50s close-harmony vocal group the Four Freshmen, but he remained on the East Coast to marry her mother and raise their family.
Despite turning down this opportunity, Lynne’s father — and late mother, a performer in her own right — had busy lives as artists and entertainers, especially at numerous jazz clubs in Center City Philadelphia, near the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood where she grew up. Watching them was where the performance bug bit her, and Lynne says she knew she wanted to be a singer since about age eight.
“When my father had music jobs I would sing a song or two with him on stage, standards in addition to popular songs of that time,” she says. “By the time I was 11 I knew so many standards and those songs are still with me today. I will never let them go.”
“I loved going to work with them both, and I saw many notable and famous performers in those clubs,” she adds. “I remember one special night when my parents played at Orsatti’s at 13th and Locust there was electricity in the air. My mother changed gowns every single set.”
Although Lynne did not have formal lessons as a child, she recalls that she sat beside her father at the piano and learned some songs through memorization, and she and her sister used to memorize technical exercises and play them over and over.
In addition to the music, Lynne absorbed the tonalities and phrasings of such vocal legends as Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, and Peggy Lee.
“I loved Peggy’s cool and laid back style,” Lynne says. “One performer really close to my heart, though, was Billie Holiday — she had such feeling, and could tell a story with her songs.”
As rich as life in a family of performers was, Lynne reflects that it was also chaotic, and she talks about moving frequently, leaving Philadelphia to settle in Palmyra, then Riverton, then leaving home at age 17 to pursue her dreams.
In the mid-1980s Lynne met her husband — with whom she had three (now grown) daughters — renowned sculptor and percussionist Richard Gerster, who introduced her to a legion of gifted musicians from the Trenton area, helping to steer Lynne toward her own career as a performer.
“Richard changed my life significantly,” she says. “He was so multi-faceted, knew everyone in the art and music world, and took me everywhere to meet his friends. I adored him and knew he was the man for me, and we were married three years later. At the time he was the drummer for (guitarist) Dick Gratton’s jazz group. Now, many years later, the group is back together and playing all over.”
About her own music work and the selection of her performing name, she says, “It just came to me one day. A lot of people in my business us a stage name. Both my maiden name, Cherubini, and my married name, Gerster, just did not seem to work for me as an easy to remember professional name.”
The couple’s property in Bordentown Township is adorned with Gerster’s wood carvings, welded steel and bronze sculptures, as well as antique cars that he has restored and shows.
“Richard was Seward Johnson’s personal sculptor for many years, but he is also a professional drummer and has worked in the music field since he was 17,” she says. “He’s a true renaissance man.”
Lynne’s determined studies in voice and piano progressed steadily throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, and began with Trenton legend Richard “Dick” Braytenbah.
“I had many great teachers, and Dick was one,” she says. “We went through all the books and he accompanied me while I developed a ‘book’ of standards. Then I started doing some gigs with him at a few places locally and in Philadelphia.”
In addition to Braytenbah, Lynne pursued performance and jazz studies with Joe Ialacci, John Coates Sr., and Gerald Price. She then spent four years in intensive studies of keyboard harmony with New York/North Jersey-based pianist, composer, arranger, and teacher Jim Ridl.
“I met Jim Ridl when he was working in the ‘Burg (Chambersburg), and I really wanted to study what he was teaching; he was the one who really turned my playing around,” Lynne says. “Then I went to Westminster and met Laurie Altman, and we studied intensely — two hour lessons each week.”
Lynne is referring to internationally renowned composer, pianist, and esteemed member of the faculty at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
“Laurie was a wonderful teacher and taught me how to improvise, how to feel the music until it was like automatic pilot for me, and I could make up things with my right hand,” she adds. “I studied with him for about 10 years and it was amazing to reach a level where I could sing and play with ‘voicings’ rather than just chords.”
Lynne received her certificate in piano pedagogy from Westminster Choir College of Rider University in 2004.
At the same time she was polishing and expanding her piano talents, Lynne was beginning to perform in the area, and her first gig doing solo piano and vocals was at the Stockton Inn. Pianist Tony Inverso, yet another talented musician she met through Gerster, used to invite her to sit alongside him and improvise there. He must have felt she was ready to entertain the crowd on her own, and suggested Lynne fill in for him when he went on vacation.
“I was very reluctant, but I had to do it,” she says. “Tony counseled me on overcoming stage fright, and I’ll never forget his words, ‘concentrate on the music, not the crowd.’”
“I was so nervous the night of the gig, it was agonizing, but I kept thinking positive thoughts, did what Tony told me, and things worked out,” Lynne says.
On another occasion, her friend and teacher Braytenbah invited Lynne to sit in at the old Office Cafe in Hamilton, a beloved hangout for many of the area’s jazz aficionados. With Nick Palmer on bass and Bobby Bowden on drums, Lynne impressed the owner so much that he hired her to play the following week.
“I only had 12 songs in my repertoire, but we practiced and practiced,” she says. “I packed the place with friends, and although I thought I was terrible, we had an amazing time. What experience I gained through those times.”
“Since I knew Rich and he knew all the local musicians, I sat in with them, and I wasn’t always good, I was still developing my voice and skills,” Lynne adds. “They encouraged me though. Tom ‘Pass’ Passarella, the organist for the Bob Smith Trio, used to say to me, ‘never give up, keep going, don’t stop.’”
Sometimes, she admits, the guys could be negative, a little catty even, and Lynne heard the comments, but tried to take them in a positive way.
“I’d think, ‘what do I have to do to swing,’ and I would work on it,” she says. “There are so many talented people in the Trenton area, and I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to know them and perform with them. Now, when I see Tom Pass, he likes to say, ‘you’ve come a long way baby.’”
Like another one of her musical heroes, Ella Fitzgerald, Lynne sees herself playing and singing as long as she can. She absolutely believes that performing is in her blood.
“I teach every day and go straight to music jobs on the weekend, but I love what I do,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t feel like dragging the piano around, but once it’s set up and we get going, it’s pure joy. When people ask, ‘how long can you do this?’ my answer is, ‘forever.’”
Carole Lynne, Jester’s European Cafe, 233 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. First three Saturdays of the month, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. 609-298-9963.
Salt Creek Grille, 1 Rockingham Row, Princeton Forrestal Village. Friday, November 11, 8 to 11 p.m. 609-419-4200.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Tuesday, December 27, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. 609-924-6011. www.carolelynnemusic.com.