Carolyn Montgomery at the 2022 AMERICAN SONGBOOK ASSOCIATION GALA at Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Music Center
Carolyn Montgomery wears a lot of hats. She is a multi award-winning singer-songwriter at MAC, Bistro and Nightlife. She is the co-founder of the American Songbook Association – in this organization she is the director of education and outreach, as well as the executive director of the organization.
On Monday, May 9, the ASA will hold its third annual gala. This year they will celebrate the artistry of Stephen Schwartz with an evening of entertainment that will benefit multiple ASA programs.
I had the opportunity to speak with Carolyn and learned about the ASA and the Gala itself.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Carolyn, thank you for speaking with Broadway World! Your gala is approaching. What can participants expect from this evening?
One of the things that will make this evening absolutely unique is that we have decided to only include artists who have a strong personal relationship with Stephen. These are people for whom Stephen changed their lives and the trajectory of their careers. (Artists like Jason Graae, Debbie Gravitte, Teri Ralston, Rupert Holmes, Paul Shaffer, John Boswell, Ann Harada, Judy Kuhn, Sally Mayes, Kurt Peterson, Kelli Rabke, Jessica Henry and John Bucchino. Scott Coulter directs and the musical direction is by Michael Roberts.) They all know him well. They broke bread with him and are his personal friends. We’re just doing piano – no fancy combos or anything like that. You’ll feel like you’re in Stephen Schwartz’s living room.
How do you select your winners?
So we have a board of seven people, who make the creative decisions as well as the fiduciary decisions. We honored Sheldon Harnick and Marilyn Maye as lifetime achievement recipients. Both are over 90 years old. We try to find winners who have contributed decades and decades to the American Songbook. Stephen Schwartz contributed decades because he started so young. He’s got 5 decades of music that’s not only prolific, it’s awesome. We are thrilled to have him because his career spans 5 decades and he has done so much. This is how we determine the winner. We are looking for someone who has contributed a lot and has had a long career who deserves to be honored for the time they have devoted to their creative work.
Tell me about your company honored this year:
James Brent White is the recipient of the Bill Sensenbrenner Dream Maker Award. He is the first recipient of this award. He was the head of diversity and inclusion for a company called Lord Abbott. He went there and started his own consulting company. He is an advocate for diversity and inclusion, trying to partner with marginalized communities who need more resources and funding with financial institutions, and bringing the places that have the most funding to programs for those who have the least. He’s always promoted events for women and women’s empowerment for women’s rights, for Black Lives Matter, and he’s always been an advocate for SAGE, which caters to LGBTQ seniors.
You co-founded the ASA, but this is your first year as CEO. What prompted you to take on this role?
I was a fan of Cabaret Scenes, which is a 27-year-old magazine, but I felt we could go further. My mission is to protect America’s musical heritage. I have a 17-year-old son, and I saw that rap and hip-hop (which, by the way, I really like, so I’m not a music snob.) were prevalent. Kids weren’t learning anything in underserved public schools – that’s what we were looking for – they don’t have any music curriculum. So we preserve jazz, musical theater and the American Songbook. We do not create small artists. We use music as an educational tool to expand their minds, their vocabulary, their ideas about possibilities for themselves, about life and higher education. Our metric was extremely successful.
How did the ASA partner with Cabaret Scenes Magazine?
Frank Dane, who is the editor, and I are friends, and Peter Leavy, who is the original editor, the three of us met in a restaurant and I said, “I have this vision.” I created the education program. Despite the pandemic, we have reached and taught over 3,000 public school students. We had them do Johnny Mercer programs that are just breathtakingly wonderful. Frank loved my idea, so we decided to preserve and promote this amazing music by enriching underserved senior centers and teaching it to children, and doing it in print with the magazine.
In your awareness work, how do you manage to introduce the American Songbook to a generation that has been weaned on Hip-Hop, Rap and Rock?
One of the things I’ve done is make sure I have teachers of color who are brilliant, eloquent, fabulous teachers. They come in and say to these children, “Suspend your disbelief and try. We’re playing Cole Porter, and it takes about two hours to engage these kids. It’s incredible. We thought it would take two weeks. This is not the case. They turn to us and say “what does THAT mean?” We have excellent teachers. We pay our teachers and offer these programs 100% free. That’s why we have this gala: to fund the programs.
What makes you most proud to work with this organization?
I am so proud of this organization. The whole board turned to me and said, “You have to be the executive director.” I said, “I don’t think I know enough about running nonprofits.” I spent a year taking classes and was accepted into Columbia’s graduate program for nonprofit management, which I will be attending in the spring. It is our education program of which I am most proud. They are children who live in shelters who don’t even think about where they will go to high school, now realizing that there are possibilities for them. Their parents love them very much, they just don’t know what’s there for them, what’s available. I find myself having conversations with these kids about SUNY schools, about how to get to college without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars. It had never occurred to them before. This is called leveling the playing field.
How do you approach these schools to bring them these programs?
It was HOURS of work at first – because they didn’t trust me. They thought they were going to taste it, and then we would start charging them. They had no budget. But once I got in and the word got out, I now have a waiting list. It took me about a year.
How can the average New Yorker help you with your programs?
Well, those with resources can certainly donate money, and I know that’s obvious. Others can volunteer at events or help me find foundations and resources. The truth is that there are a lot of resources in this country. It’s about finding them and channeling them to the right place.
What is the American Songbook for you?
The misconception is that the American Songbook was written by five guys from the Lower East Side in 1930. They’re definitely a great base: Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin. The American Songbook is also Carole King, Leonard Cohen…it’s still being written. American Classical Standard is any song that has been recorded by hundreds of artists in their own unique way. My Favorite Things has been recorded by over 450 top singers. It is a classic standard. So it’s still being written. I think Sara Bareilles wrote it. All kinds of modern writers, as long as their songs perpetually spread through the music community. It is a standard.
Thank you, Carolyn, for speaking with me and I wish you much success at your next gala!
The ASA Gala will take place next Monday, May 9 at Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Music Center (129 West 67th St.) Tickets are available at www.AmericanSongbookAssociation.org