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Mary Foster Conklin

Old school song hound

About Me

Vocalist and radio host Mary Foster Conklin is an old school song hound, with a special talent for uncovering lesser known treasures of the Great American Songbook and performing them in nontraditional venues. She hosts a weekly live radio show called “A Broad Spectrum – the Ladies of Jazz” celebrating women composers and lyricists on WFDU.FM on the HD2 channel Jazz and What's More. “Scratch her witty tough-girl-from Jersey patter,” wrote The Washington Post, “and you’ll find a sensitive artist (but not frail) with a wide-ranging boldly colored voice and an open ear for off-beat material.”

A New Jersey native who came to New York to pursue theatre work, her transformation from actor to jazz singer began when she joined drummer/composer Art Lillard’s 15-piece Heavenly Band and her song selections naturally shifted from show tunes to blues, Latin and bebop. As a leader, her sets are a mix of contemporary material and standards, with an emphasis on the lesser known treasures of the Great American Songbook. In New York, Conklin’s talents have earned her a place on the stages of The Blue Note, Zinc Bar, Iridium, Birdland, the Kitano and Pangea. She can also be seen from time to time singing off various fire escapes as The Lady in the Red Dress with the Renegade Cabaret. Her latest projects include MIRRORS REVISITED, an evening of dark art songs by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller immortalized by Peggy Lee and LIFE IS A BITCH, a tribute to Beat poet/lyricist Fran Landesman, (best known for “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men”) which was praised by the New York Times as “full of salt and vinegar — with the intensity and tough humor of someone who might have lived on the bohemian fringe in the late ’40s and ’50s, when the word ‘hip’ meant something.” Her latest recording, Photographs, released in 2016, puts a personal spin on a collection of standards and contemporary tunes by Oscar Brown, Jr., Benny Carter, Lennon and McCartney, Johnny Mandel and Joni Mitchell, with five tunes by Fran Landesman.

On the West Coast she has performed in Los Angeles at the In House Jazz Series, Vitello’s, the Gardenia and the Jazz Bakery. She has appeared in Chicago at the Cultural Center and in Palm Beach, Florida at the Royal Room. Ms. Conklin has twice been awarded the MAC Award for Jazz Vocalist by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, and has been praised by The New York Times as “a highly creative singer whose style blends cabaret and jazz so thoroughly as to defy any easy categorization.” Her debut recording, Crazy Eyes, was listed as one of the ten best CDs of 1998 by In Theatre Magazine, and won the 1999 Bistro Award presented by Backstage Magazine for Outstanding Recording. Her second recording, You’d Be Paradise, was released in September 2001 to critical acclaim, worldwide airplay and was a jazz bestseller for two years on www.CDBaby.com.

Why the song search mission? Several years ago, what began as a simple quest for some lesser known Matt Dennis material (West Coast songwriter best known for his hits “Angel Eyes” and “Violets for your Furs”) quickly became an all-out obsession. She began her search at the Library of Congress, then teamed up with Los Angeles singer/songwriter Mark Winkler to present a bi-coastal tribute to Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup. Blues For Breakfast - Remembering Matt Dennis (Rhombus Records) became an award winning third CD, hailed by the press as ”delightfully dramatic” (Jazz Times) “a work of art and heart” (powerlineblog.com), and “an overdue reminder of the honored place of Matt Dennis in American music” (Jazz Society of Oregon).

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My Jazz Story

George Gershwin said it best - "Life is a lot like jazz - it's best when you improvise." I first did radio in college, where there was an active group of students who were passionate about music running the station. It was heaven to have the run of a much larger library and there I sampled many genres beyond mainstream pop and rock. My shows were an eclectic mix of Frank Zappa, Phoebe Snow, Gong, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Paul Winter and more. As a vocalist, my first gig in New York City was at 8BC in the bombed-out East Village singing with a punk band, but I gradually found my way to clubs where you could actually understand the lyrics and later sang with a big band for over twenty years. I consider New York a jazz town in spirit and have been lucky to experience many of the greats live in the clubs like Betty Carter, Alberta Hunter, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie, Anita O'Day and Abbey Lincoln. I loved to hang out at the old Carl Fisher Music Store, combing for hours through the endless file cabinets of sheet music. I got back into radio gradually as an adult - mostly subbing for DJ friends and assisting with interviews, as I was now deep into song research. When one broadcaster got thrown out of the station on International Working Women's Day (no men were allowed), he volunteered me to do his show. I had three days to come up with a concept and two hours of music - that's how A Broad Spectrum came into being. When a college station in New Jersey put out the call for jazz programs, I was ready and went back on the air with my own show in 2016. To me, the best programs highlight new releases, plug live shows and offer up a little history of the music we love. Women have always been a part of this legacy - my job is to shine more light on the past and give those foremothers the attention they deserve.

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