Jazz, up close and personal

Riverside jazz pianist Bobby Schiff, vocalist Terry Sullivan perform Feb. 17

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By Nona Tepper

About three years ago, Forest Park resident Terry Sullivan met Bobby Schiff for the first time, although she already knew the name. 

Schiff, a Riverside resident, has been in the music industry for more than 30 years, a jazz pianist who has played for legendary vocalists like Mel Torme and Peggy Lee. Sullivan said she felt intimidated by Schiff's musicianship when she first met him, thinking they could never work together because "he's too advanced."

"I did have him high up here," Sullivan said. "So I summoned my courage and called him -- I'm joking to some degree -- and said, 'So could I come over and run some tunes?'"

And, sure enough, Schiff said yes. Even her mother was impressed.

"I called her one day and I said, 'Mom I'm singing with a pianist who worked with Peggy Lee, and I'm singing a couple songs that he did with Peggy Lee,'" Sullivan said. "My mother's very cynical, nothing impresses her, and she was so impressed."

Sullivan and Schiff have been rehearsing together weekly ever since, and now they're preparing for their biannual performance as the Terry Sullivan Trio at 3 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Saints Peter and Paul Lutheran Church, 250 Woodside Rd. in Riverside. 

Accompanying Sullivan's vocals will be Schiff on piano and Stewart Miller on bass. 

"My favorite bass player in town," Schiff said.

Tickets are $25 per person, and $20 for seniors and students at the door. 

Performers estimate the show will last about one-and-a-half hours, although that really depends on the crowd.

"The millennial generation, they don't have contact with live music," Schiff said. "They stream everything. The art of conversation is being lost, and they don't have a connection with people performing live. To do something and have it that intimate is really special."

Much of Schiff's career has been built by performing live shows at supper clubs and jazz clubs. Always a natural, Schiff started formally training as a pianist when he was 5 years old, taking the bus from Rogers Park to downtown Chicago. He would arrive early for his lessons so he could visit the Art Institute of Chicago, which was free at the time. 

He was captivated by the French Impressionist paintings and credits them for "leaving an imprint on his psyche" and making him particularly fond of Gabriel Faure, Claude Debussy and other French composers.

"When I hear music by French composers of that era, I can match it to the works of art," he said.

As Schiff grew, he went on to play at big venues in the city, where one night he bumped into jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had stopped by the concert and asked to sit in. Schiff, of course, obliged. 

"That was fun," he said, but random. More memorable are his longer relationships with singers like Peggy Lee, who famously sang "Fever" and "Is That All There Is?"

"She had a great book, which means the book that's passed out to musicians," Schiff said of Lee. "Her arrangements were wonderful. Later on, she hired me to do a tour with a smaller group of guys. We did a little bit in the states, and a little bit in Canada."

In the 1970s, he started a commercial music business and created jingles for Sesame Street, McDonald's, Hallmark and more. During that time, Schiff moved out to Los Angeles briefly to try his hand at film scoring, staying out west for about four years.

"I just picked a bad time to go out there," he said. "I was just starting to make good headway when my union went on strike for like eight months. So I came back to Chicago and I never looked back."

Schiff went on to perform with singers like Jack Jones and Barbara Eden, and spent 30 years as an accompanist to Frank D'Rone. He moved to Riverside about 24 years ago for a woman and never left. 

In 2006, he released his first CD, "Late Game." Then, about three years ago at a mutual friend's house, he met Sullivan, and the two bonded over their shared love for live music and French composers.

"In jazz there's kind of a lot of risk, therein lies the fun," Sullivan said. "It's not planned, a lot of it is improvised, and it's in the moment, and you just look at each other and listen. So if you get to know the person musically, as we kind of now do, you take the risk without jumping off a cliff. You kind of have a clue where the other one might go."

Sullivan grew up in small-town Ohio, singing in choirs, taking up the flute in fourth-grade and then going on to earn a degree in the subject. After college, she moved to Chicago to pursue singing.

"I had jazz in me and I was just too young and too shy to do that," Sullivan said. "When you're the girl singer out front and everybody looks you over, I was just too young. I tried for a bit and the club owners were mean, and I didn't know what I was doing, so I went into small ensemble singing."

 Sullivan threw herself into small ensemble singing and traveled several times to England to hear their groups.

"Nobody does that like the English. The scales fell from my eyes," she said. 

She went on to pursue the craft for about 30 years, performing in the famous His Majestie's Clarkes choir. But about 10 years ago, she tried her voice at jazz again.

"By this time I was a hardened person, toughened up enough to not care about standing in front," Sullivan said. "I was just more comfortable in my own skin and not such a shrinking violet."

She now compares her voice to that of the late singer Blossom Dearie, whose delicate, girlish voice was such a fixture in New York and Paris nightclubs.

This singing style works well with Schiff's sensibilities -- since her voice complements the subtle French harmonies he loves -- as well as with the small performance the two have planned.

"What we do in these concerts, it's small and intimate, we do up-close, small stuff and that's a good thing," Sullivan said. "More and more I think people are a little bit separated and dehumanized by all these electronics. 

"They're listening on recordings, or they're maybe going to concerts in big halls and big stadiums, and that's great and all great, but this intimate stuff, that gives you energy."

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