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Showbiz Today Star of Tomorrow
Jazz singer Jane Monheit
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Vocalist Jane Monheit, 23, is the youngest person ever to be runner-up in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, finishing in second place in the jazz vocal contest in 1998. This honor led to a debut album that was a huge hit in jazz circles and sell out-concerts at Lincoln Center and The Village Vanguard.
Next up: Monheit is performing at the Blue Note on New Year's Eve, closing up a banner year for her, both professionally and personally. She tells us why.
CNN: You are already drawing comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, one of your childhood idols. How does that feel?
Jane Monheit: Well, she is the main idol, that's for sure. Ella was already famous by the time she was my age, but just to be compared to her is just such an honor -- I mean, I can't even put it into words.
CNN: How old were you when you first developed an interest in music?
Monheit: There was never a time when I wasn't listening to music constantly, because it is such a big part of my family life. I spent so much time at my grandparents' house and there was never a time when there wasn't a jazz album playing there.
CNN: You come from a musical family, too.
Monheit: My brother is a rock guitar player, my dad plays bluegrass banjo music, my mother was in musical theater. So it kind of covers the whole spectrum.
CNN: How do you convey such a sense of maturity in your singing at such a young age?
Monheit: I don't know. People ask me that a lot and sometimes I attribute it to the fact that I have had a lot of training in theater, and sometimes I think, "Well, I have lived an awful lot for being 23." ... I try to pick music that I really understand, tunes that really mean something to me.
CNN: You had a career- and life-altering moment when you were 20 and entered the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition.
Monheit: I entered it not really knowing what it was, just because my voice teacher thought it would be a good idea. I got into the competition, and that's when I realized that it was the kind of thing that jump-starts a person's career. ...Luckily, I got into the semifinals, then the finals. ... I got very, very lucky and came in second in the competition.
CNN: Were you surprised to finish second in a competition like that?
Monheit: I was very surprised, because I didn't originally make the semifinals at all. The whole funny part is that I got a letter in the mail saying, "We are sorry, but you only placed 18th and we only take 10 semifinalists." ... And the next day the chairperson of the competition called me and said, "We have extra funding, and I want you," and I was like, "Thank you, thank you so much." I freaked out.
CNN: How did you pick the music for your debut album, "Never Never Land?"
Monheit: Basically, we just chose music that I had known since I was a little girl. We just wanted to do the tunes that I loved, and keep it real simple.
CNN: "Never Never Land" is also the name of the title song. What does that song mean to you?
Monheit: It's so corny, but the song is about dreamland and all of these wonderful things. And that is kind of where I am right now; everything wonderful is happening at once.
CNN: What does it feel like when you are on stage?
Monheit: Mostly, it just feels right. I mean, there are all these little feelings that enter in -- Am I stepping on the hem of my gown? Am I going to break a heel on this rickety stage? -- and all of that is very distracting. But mostly, you know, it just feels right. ...
CNN: You got engaged two years ago to a drummer. Your fiance comes to many of your shows, and occasionally even plays in them. How does he react to your performances?
Monheit: He's a very sentimental guy. He would kill me for saying this, but he gets a little weepy. Yeah, he is really proud of me.
CNN: Do you see yourself as wise beyond your years musically?
Monheit: Oh, I don't know. I am really such a kid still -- I am such a kid in a million ways. But something different comes out of me when I am performing. It's weird, because I will be in the middle of a tune and it is so serious, and then I will start to talk in the middle of the song and it is like, "There's doofy little 23-year-old Jane again." It's funny, feeling the switch within myself, and I am sure it is apparent to other people, too. It is strange. I am sort of half grown-up right now
CNN: Do you think you will ever perform anything other than jazz?
Monheit: Probably. I grew up with all different type of music and I still listen to all different kinds of music. ...I am sure (jazz) will always be the basis of my entire career, but who knows what I am going to be doing 10 or 20 years from now? I don't even want to plan that out.
I am sure there is going to be lots of different things up ahead. I hope so, because there is so much incredible music in the world. I couldn't imagine limiting myself to one thing.
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