Hilary Kole: Versatile, Sweet and Jazzy
Music has always been Kole's focus. Her father was a singer on Broadway and she had a classical piano upbringing. She heard American standards and, naturally, musical theater music growing up. "It was the standards that really spoke to me," she says. "I think, because I was a composer from an early age, I really liked the idea that you could sing a song different each time. That was something that I loved. Improvisation was spontaneous composition. That was always exciting. More exciting than doing the same show eight times a week, the exact same way. Although, with the right show I would like to do that, as well, one day. But where my heart lies is in the spontaneous expression of a live jazz club. That kind of experience. For me, that's where I live."
She attended The Walden School, a private summer music camp in New Hampshire, where she was composing for string quartets and woodwind quintets. Then she received a scholarship to the jazz commercial composition program at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, was studying with Manny Albam, Ed Green and Rich DeRosa. She started to write big band charts and eventually made it into the jazz choir. There she worked with Jackie Presti, a noted teacher and performer around New York City. Kole quickly got acclimated to singing, and Presti got her an audition at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Things moved fast, and serendipitously, from there.
She jokes that she steered headlong into singing "When I realized you can't make a living writing for string quartets ... I was so lucky to get that first job at the Rainbow Room. You get addicted. The thing about composition is that it's very isolated. You sit in a room by yourself. You're wiring all this music. Then if you're lucky, you get to hear it once or twice. With singing, you get that instant gratification that's really nice. Again, when you're singing in the jazz realm, you're also using your composition chops. It was that combination platter that I loved so much. Also, I'll get on the piano and play one or two songs per set. That's where I bring everything together. I'm playing and I'm improvising and singing at the same time. For me, that's the ultimate."
At the Rainbow Room, she says, "I was 20 years old. All of a sudden I had a gig singing in New York City up at Rockefeller Center six nights a week for five-and-a-half hours a night. And going to school during the day. I was really lucky. I was a big band singer. It was a 12-piece band. It wasn't a full big band, but it was all traditional pop/jazz music. I got to learn the way all of the great jazz singers, the way Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan learned. I learned on the bandstand. I had wonderful horn players. It was a dream job. It's a shame they don't have more places like that for young singers to learn. I had almost two years of constant work, which was amazing. I learned to hone my craft there. I learned hundreds of songs. It's stayed with me all these years."
She was also the youngest person to headline at the room. "It was an amazing experience. Then I would sneak through the kitchen and go into Rainbow and Stars (a larger room) and I would listen to Tony Bennett. I remember seeing John Pizzarelli. He had just made it big. And Bucky Pizzarelli. Ann Hampton Calloway. I would sneak back and forth, then go back and do my sets. It was like being in a movie. Of course I thought every gig in New York City was just like that," she says chuckling. "A rude awakening when that room closed."
Even when it closed, Kole's career continued its ascent.
"I've been very lucky. The nice thing about New York City and about this music is that one thing always leads you into something else. You may not know it. I was able to have the job at the Rainbow Room for about two years. During that time I met a wonderful male singer by the name of Christopher Gines. And he said, 'We should do a cabaret show.' And I said, 'I don't do cabaret. I'm not a cabaret singer.' Then the room closed. And I called him because I needed a gig. We ended up writing a show called 'Our Sinatra.' It ended up opening up at the Algonquin in 1999. Then ran off Broadway for about six years. So I was very lucky with that. It did two national tours and six or seven productions nationwide all over the place. That kind of got me into the next level."