Spider Saloff is an internationally acclaimed jazz vocalist based in Chicago. In late 2017, Saloff began a music, talk and comedy podcast titled Spider Saloff’s Spider’s Web. A podcast is similar to a radio program, with the key difference being that listeners can tune into their favorite shows at their own convenience and listen to podcasts directly on their personal computer or media player. The term “podcast” is a combination of the brand name “iPod” (a media player developed by Apple) and “broadcast,” the traditional means of receiving information and leisure content on the radio or television. When the two words were merged, the terms podcast, podcaster and the art of podcasting was born.
Prior to the introduction of her podcast, Saloff was perhaps best known for her contributions as cohost of National Public Radio’s Words and Music. She also participated (along with fellow vocalists Frieda Lee and Dee Alexander) in the national touring Ella Fitzgerald tribute, “The Three Ellas,” and is known for her live musical tributes to Tin Pan Alley icon George Gershwin.
The All Music Guide’s Alex Henderson wrote, “As a vocalist, Saloff has a clean, uncomplicated, straightforward approach. On ballads, Saloff can be a vulnerable, tender and an introspective torch singer; on up-tempo material, the Windy City resident can be fun and playfully swinging.
“Because Saloff has devoted entire concerts to the Gershwin songbook and obviously has an extensive knowledge of the classic Broadway theater music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, some have described her as a cabaret artist. But even though Saloff has attracted her share of attention in cabaret circles and has performed at some cabaret-friendly venues, she prefers to be categorized as a jazz vocalist—and, to be sure, her approach is more jazz than cabaret.
“Saloff scats and improvises—two of the main things that jazz vocalists are known for doing. The people who have influenced her the most are definitely jazz-oriented, including Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Julie London. When Saloff scats, one can tell that she has paid very close attention to Fitzgerald’s scatting (which isn’t to say that she is actually emulating Fitzgerald, or anyone else). Saloff has cited the innovative Betty Carter as one of her favorite singers, but unlike Carter, Saloff isn’t part of jazz avant-garde and doesn’t go out of her way to be abstract or cerebral. Saloff’s work is much more accessible by mainstream standards.
“Saloff isn’t a native of the Windy City. She’s originally from the Philadelphia/southern New Jersey area and lived in New York City before making Chicago her adopted home in 1994.”
On her podcast, Saloff usually sings brief excerpts from the well-known and often-recorded jazz standards that she is best known for. This both avoids her the difficulty of fitting them into a relatively brief podcast, as well as having her podcast fully respect the copyright fees that the composers would then be entitled to. On one podcast though, in early 2018, Saloff sang some complete songs that she had written herself. Two of them I was very familiar with, having heard Saloff sing them both in person and on CD.
Saloff introduced them on the podcast. “The first one I want to play for you is a title cut from a CD I did
called Like Glass that I co-produced with guitarist Steve Ramsdell,” said Spider. “This song is interesting. At least it’s interesting. It’s about losing someone in your life, about someone just drifting away from you. I remember I started writing this song in O’Hare Airport, coming to me all at one time. This is what happens. I usually start with the lyric and then suddenly the music starts appearing. I remember humming the melody into my cell phone in little segments and by the time I landed in San Francisco the song is finished. So this is that song that is the title of my CD, Like Glass.”
The podcast format offers the artist and audience a chance to bond and achieve understanding beyond a typical concert format. Here Saloff can explain in whatever detail she likes, both her creative process, as well as demonstrate the fruits of her labor, with the next best thing to a live performance. Saloff takes full advantage of the opportunity to explain to her listeners the thought process that goes through each element of developing a new song as well as its meaning to the songwriter and its intended meaning for her listeners.
“This next one is also from the recording Like Glass, and it’s funny that it could be taken in a lot of different ways, but it’s basically about seduction,” continued Saloff. “It’s a warning about someone who may be out there seducing you and you don’t even realize it.” [Song starts]
You better watch yourself with that one. He’s got a way you won’t suspect.
You had better watch yourself with that one.
You won’t know what you should protect.
At first it seems like he’s the sad one, and someone left him lost and blue.
But you will find out he’s the bad one, and soon there’s nothing left of you.
Saloff has a reputation as being one of our foremost interpreters of the music of George Gershwin. She is also a personal friend of the Gershwin family. She shared some insights on her podcast. “I’ve always been fascinated by the story of George Gershwin. He came from such a poor family on the Lower East Side of New York City. They had four kids, the oldest being his brother Ira, who is very quiet and shy and very smart. George was the second in line and he was sort of a wild kid who was out getting into trouble. He was big and athletic and very outspoken. Even though they were poor, the family thought it was very important to have music lessons. One day they were bringing a piano up to the third floor where they were taking it through a window on pulleys, and Ira Gershwin was in the corner shivering in his boots because he did not want to take piano lessons. Legend has it that George came upstairs and sat at the piano and played an entire piece. They said, ‘Sorry Ira. George is the one who’s going to get the piano lessons.’ Ira just wiped his brow and said ‘Whew!’”
Saloff then explained to her podcast audience, “One of the reasons that I became so prominent in my career is because of something very serendipitous. It happened in the early ‘90s while I was still living in New York and my musical partner Ricky Ritzell and I were still performing in clubs. Through a lot of complicated circumstances we were able to meet and love Leopold Godowsky III, who is the nephew of George Gershwin. He is a wonderful man, incredibly generous. He loved what we were doing musically. Consequently, he asked me to sing at his mother’s 85th birthday party in New York. Yes, his mother being Frankie Gershwin, George Gershwin’s baby sister. Frankie Gershwin was an incredibly wonderful, candid, lovely woman, who had been a singer in the ‘20s.”
Saloff later confirmed this with Frankie when she got to know her. “I asked her if she had a debut in Paris and this was our conversation.”
“Oh yes I did,” Frankie Gershwin replied.
“Somebody really famous produced that. I cannot remember who it was,” Saloff commented.
“Noel Coward—no—it was that other one, Cole Porter,” said Gershwin.
“Well, I heard that George played for you on opening night,” added Saloff.
“He did,” said Frankie, “but then he left. I guess he had better things to do.”
“When I opened the Gershwin (centennial celebration) concert,” explained Saloff, “Frankie not only attended, but she introduced me on stage and came up and sang in a red lace dress. She was incredible, and I was thrilled to know her. And she did hail her brother George, the genius.”
Podcasting has become a surprisingly popular new mode of communication. Personally, I listen to many different podcasts each week, hosted by diverse and interesting personalities on a variety of subjects and find them stimulating. These include, but are not limited to: Chael Sonnen on mixed martial arts, Adrian Wojnarowski on pro basketball, Rachael Maddow on politics, Steve Austin on professional wrestling and, yes, Spider Saloff on jazz. I urge you to give these or many other great podcasts a listening session very soon.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.
Contact Randy at firstname.lastname@example.org