Visits to New York won’t be the same now that the Algonquin Hotel has closed the Oak Room. Since Ben Bodne sold the hotel in 1987, it has changed hands several times and is now operated by the Marriott chain as one of its high-end properties. With each change, another layer of the Algonquin’s mystique seems to evaporate. The Oak Room existed as an elegant dining and listening post for only 32 years of the hotel’s 110-year history, but from its opening night it was one of the most important New York showcases for singers. In announcing its demise last Thursday, general manager Gary Budge noted the room’s importance but said, ”…with declining guest counts, it seemed like the appropriate thing for us to do right now.” After a general renovation of the hotel, he said, the Oak Room would not reopen. For an appreciation of the room’s history and impact, see this Stephen Holden article in The New York Times.
The Oak Room never made a point of distinguishing between cabaret and jazz; in any case, that line is clear only when considering singers like Julie Wilson and Andrea Marcovicci, out-and-out cabaret stars. Among the performers featured there who could be described as jazz, cabaret or both were Sylvia Syms, Tierney Sutton, Wesla Whitfield, Barbara Carroll, Jack Jones, Sandy Stewart, Mary Cleere Haran, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein and Daryl Sherman. Ms. Stewart sang at the Algonquin several times accompanied by her son Bill Charlap at the piano. Ms. Whitfield appeared with pianist Mike Greensill and bassist Michael Moore. Ms. Sherman became a latterday favorite in the Oak Room, sometimes working with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Here’s a part of their tribute to Johnny Mercer. The video is a bit fuzzy. The interpretation and verve are not.
I wonder if the Marriott folks might be persuaded to change their corporate mind about eliminating a cultural treasure. The improving economy could get those guest counts back up.