Pride playlist: 14 classic songs that connect jazz and the LGBTQ experience

It has been more than 50 years since the riots at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village area of Manhattan beginning on June 28, 1969 — the first time that members of the gay community stood up to the abusive treatment they’d received at the hands of authorities.

A year and a half later, in March of 1970, the Christopher Street Liberation Day march effectively began a movement that is commemorated in marches and parades all over the world, including one of the biggest in North America that takes place annually right here in Toronto.

The LGBTQ community has always had strong ties to the world of jazz, including composers such as Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, whose works populated the Great American Songbook, and some of the star performers of the idiom such as Fred Hersch, Ian Shaw, Chris Connor and Gary Burton.

June is Pride Month all over the world. To mark the occasion, we’ve put together a sampling of music that connects the jazz community and the LGBTQ community. There are some true gems in here, and I’m willing to bet you’ll listen to a few of them differently after this. We hope you enjoy our Pride playlist.

Michael Feinstein – My Funny Valentine
  • Written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

This classic was written for the 1937 musical Babes In Arms, in which the song was sung to a character named Valentine “Val” LeMar. Lorenz Hart was charged with the task of writing an unorthodox love song to someone who didn’t posses characteristics and qualities traditionally deemed “beautiful.” As the story goes, Hart — a short, closeted Jewish man — placed a mirror in front of where he sat, looked at the reflection of his own face staring back at him, and wrote some of the most poignant lyrics in the Great American Songbook — to himself! This performance by out and proud artist Michael Feinstein packs an emotional punch.

Chris Connor – Lush Life
  • Written by Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn is known for some of the most important works in jazz, including Take the A Train and the classic torch song Lush Life. Strayhorn’s sexuality was known by those in the business at a time when being openly gay certainly wasn’t commonplace.  He wrote Lush Life in his teens, expressing the emptiness of wasting time at “come-what-may places” in the company of girls with “sad and sullen grey faces.” The torch song, with its strong theme of unrequited love, is a prominent one in gay culture, and Lush Life checks that box in a big way. It’s performed here by Chris Connor, a singer known for her “cool” sound, who was eventually revealed as being gay only in her obituary.

Molly Johnson – Miss Celie’s Blues
  • Written by Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton and Lionel Richie

This song, also known as Sister from The Color Purple, is sung by the character of Shug to Celie, and speaks to (or sings to) the romantic relationship between the two women in the story. Since the release of the movie in 1985, this piece has become a bit of an anthem for the Black lesbian community. This performance comes courtesy of Molly Johnson, who has been an ally of the LGBTQ community for many years and has helped raise more than $1 million for people living with HIV/AIDS through her work as founder of the Kumbaya Festival in the 1990s.

Ann Hampton Callaway – Over the Rainbow
  • Written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg

The Wizard of Oz tells the story of Dorothy, a young girl who escapes the confines of the life that she feels has her trapped, and moves into a world of colour, sparkle and glamour. The connection between Dorothy’s escape story and the one experienced by so many closeted individuals clearly points to how easily Over the Rainbow — the theme from that movie — could become an anthem for the gay community. Gay men began identifying not only with the song, but also with the character that sang it, often referring to themselves as “friends of Dorothy.” It is sung here by Ann Hampton Callaway, a vocalist and composer who married her partner Kari Strand in a celebration at NYC’s Birdland Jazz Club in 2015.

Theo Bleckmann – We Kiss in a Shadow
  • Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

This song from The King and I may not have an overtly gay connection, but the lyrics are key to it being embraced by the LGBTQ community. Simply consider Hammerstein’s words: “We kiss in a shadow / we hide from the moon / our meetings are few and over too soon / we speak in a whisper / afraid to be heard / when people are near, we speak not a word / alone in our secret / together we sigh / for one smiling day to be free.” Openly gay, Grammy-nominated vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann performs it in this 2015 recording.

k.d. lang – Miss Chatelaine
  • Written by k.d. lang

You simply can’t have a Pride playlist without k.d. lang. A pioneering out-and-proud artist who has forged quite a path for younger members of the LGBTQ community to follow, k.d. lang’s popularity and respect within the music community are such that her sexuality is rarely even mentioned these days. Miss Chatelaine is from her highly successful album Ingénue, and was written for the Canadian magazine Chatelaine, which named her  Woman of the Year in 1988.

Heather Bambrick – The Right to Love
  • Written by Lalo Shifrin and Gene Lees

This was originally an instrumental song called Reflections, recorded by Lalo Schifrin and Stan Getz. Tony Bennett liked it and had Canadian writer Gene Lees write lyrics for it. This all took place during the height of the civil rights movement, and the song made reference to the yearning of couples in interracial relationships to have the same freedoms and acceptance as those of same-race couples.  Over time, The Right to Love was adopted by the LGBTQ community as a reflection of gay couples’ desire to share the liberties and freedoms enjoyed by those in heterosexual relationships. I first heard this song performed by k.d. lang on the Rosie O’Donnell show and was immediately moved by its simple, beautiful message. I recorded it for my album Fine State.

Patricia Barber – I Wait for Late Afternoon and You
  • Written by Cole Porter

When interviewed about playing Cole Porter in the biopic De-Lovely, actor Kevin Kline remarked, “He did not advertise his sexuality. It’s bad for business if you’re writing love songs and you’re gay. But it’s all there in his lyrics.” Acknowledging Porter’s autobiographical composing style, the film’s director, Irwin Winkler, said, “Almost every [song] he wrote was really about him.” Indeed, when looking at many of Porter’s compositions, the lyrics are written in the first person, thereby not giving anything away with the use of gender-specific pronouns. Late Afternoon and You takes listeners through a secretive love story, with covert hotel meetings and staff who are “in the know” helping to keep the secret. It makes you wonder just how many such meetings Porter attended. Patricia Barber recorded this song on her 2008 Blue Note release The Cole Porter Mix. A lesbian who “tires” of public interest in her sexuality, Barber says, “I’m hoping as we’ve all grown older, that being gay continues becoming just a part of the normal fabric of everything, and people will focus on the music more.”

Ian Shaw – If Love Were All
  • Written by Noël Coward

Born in 1899, it’s easy to see why playwright, composer, actor and singer Noël Coward would be less than forthcoming about his sexuality. He believed his private business was not for public consumption and considered “any sexual activities, when over-advertised, to be tasteless.” (He did, however, encourage his secretary to write a frank biography about him once he’d passed.) If Love Were All was written for the operetta Bitter Sweet, and is considered by many to be autobiographical. The lyrics outline a sadness as Coward laments the fact that love simply isn’t all that’s considered: “I should be lonely / I believe the more you love a man / the more you give your trust / the more you’re bound to lose / Although when shadows fall / I think if only someone splendid really needed me / someone affectionate and dear / cares would be ended if I knew that he wanted to have me near / hey ho, if love were all.”  Ian Shaw included this Coward gem on his 2009 album Somewhere Towards Love.

Carmen McRae – How Long Has This Been Going On?
  • Written by George and Ira Gershwin

Iconic vocalist Carmen McRae rejected labels on her sexuality, believing it to be fluid. This can be seen in her dating habits, enjoying relationships with both men and women, particularly in her later years. For many individuals who discover their sexuality a little later in life, the question, “How long has this been going on?” is a practical and common one, easily qualifying this song for our Pride playlist. Just to mix it up and add a touch of the Pride “party” element, we’re including a version of this song from a compilation called Verve Remixed, bringing together jazz standards with DJ remixes — resulting in some very interesting material! (Plus, what’s Pride without a little dance music?)

Alysha Umphress – Why Can’t I Kiss You?
  • Written by Jeff Blumenkrantz

Jeff Blumenkrantz is a rising star on The Great White Way, having been nominated for a Tony Award for his work on the show Urban Cowboy. As a man in his mid-50s working in the world of musical theatre, Blumenkratz is open about his sexuality, even tweeting that he’s “proud to be a gay New Yorker.” This particular song speaks to the nervous anxiety of making that first move, and questions the reasons the main character of the song hasn’t done so yet. While Blumenkrantz may have been writing this from his own perspective, it’s a common theme when it comes to anxiety around making that all-too-important first move, no matter your orientation. Vocalist Alysha Umphress recorded this and other Blumenkrantz compositions on her 2015 album I’ve Been Played:  Alysha Umphress Swings Jeff Blumenkrantz.

Aretha Franklin – Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)
  • Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Besides being one of the cinematic classics, West Side Story has given us an immeasurable amount of timeless musical material. Considering Leonard Bernstein was gay and so is Stephen Sondheim, it’s not surprising that the themes of socially condemned love and escapism are found in the music from this film. This can be clearly heard in Somewhere (There’s a Place For Us), with lyrics such as, “There’s a place for us / a time and place for us / hold my hand and we’re halfway there / hold my hand and I’ll take you there / somehow, someday, somewhere / we’ll find a new way of living / we’ll find a way of forgiving.” There are many recordings of this song, but this one by Aretha Franklin from 1973 might just be one of the best.

Lea DeLaria – Rebel Rebel 
  • Written by David Bowie

This Bowie classic from his 1974 Diamond Dogs recording was originally written for a Ziggy Stardust musical that never saw the light of day. It features notable gender-bending lyrics such as,  “You got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” making it an obvious choice for inclusion in House of David, the 2017 release from lesbian actress and singer Lea DeLaria on which she jazzes up the Bowie songbook. The daughter of a jazz pianist, DeLaria is a vocalist and comedian who is best known for her role as “butch” character Carrie “Big Boo” Black in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.

Linda Eder – I Am What I Am
  • Written by Jerry Herman

This song composed by Jerry Herman for the musical La Cage aux Folles is nothing short of a gay anthem. It’s been covered by many artists from many genres, most notably a disco version by Gloria Gaynor in 1983. However, this version from Broadway star Linda Eder connects stylistically to the song’s musical theatre beginnings. The lyrics deliver the empowering, motivational, and poignant message to the LGBTQ community:

I am what I am, I am my own special creation
So, come take a look;  give me the hook or the ovation
It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in
Life’s not worth a damn, ‘til you can say:  “Hey, world, I am what I am.”

I am what I am, I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum, some think its noise, I think it’s pretty
And, so what if I love each feather and each spangle?
Why not try to see things form a different angle?
Your life is a sham ‘til you can say:  “Hey, world, I am what I am.”

I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck, sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces
It’s my life, and there’s no return and not deposit
One life, so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a damn, ‘til you can say:  “Hey, world, I am what I am.”

If you enjoyed these selections, don’t stop at this list! There are plenty more songs just waiting to be discovered and appreciated, from artists such as Shirley Eikhard, Adi Braun, Sienna Dahlen, John Alcorn, Micah Barnes, Alex Samaras, Ori Dagan, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Andy Bey, Fred Hersch, Dave Koz, Gary Burton, Terri Lyne Carrington, Steven Taetz, Queen Latifah, James Booker, Billie Holiday, Marc Shaiman, Bart Howard, Lionel Bart and more!

Thanks for sharing in the celebration.  We hope the music brought some joy to your heart and a little bit of sparkle to your world. Here’s to music, love, acceptance and pride in who you are.

Happy Pride, everyone.