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Number Eighteen - September 2006

Hip to Be Happy

Greetings, fellow music lovers. I hope this finds you enjoying life wherever you are. I’ve been having a great time in New York and on the road with the “Blues in the Night” CD tour. So far, a month after new CD has come out, the response has been overwhelmingly positive for the recording and the shows. It’s been a very uplifting time working with great musicians and being welcomed by such warm and enthusiastic audiences everywhere so I want to spread my mirth with you.

When I was preparing to record “Blues in the Night”, I knew the starting point was the liberation I had experienced in learning how to let go more as a singer and get in touch with my Chicago musical roots, the blues. Ever since the thrilling experience of singing the song “Blues in the Night” 8 shows a week on Broadway in “Swing!” I was drawn to further explore blues as a song form and as an expressive, soulful style.

It is ironic how delving into the blues and experiencing the cathartic emotional release of this music, has helped me to be a happier person. I realized as I was releasing these primal feelings that I was getting at something important. So as I worked on making my first CD for Telarc, the recording surprisingly evolved into a meditation on happiness- how we find it, lose it and get it back.

Happiness- what a concept. Living in New York City, it’s easy to get seduced by the urban angst and cynicism which is becoming the prevalent outlook these days. In fact, cynicism seems to be creeping more and more into the psyche of the entire human race. Frankly, as a plucky optimist from the Midwest, I’m very concerned about it. To me, cynicism poses a sneaky and dangerous threat to our health and happiness as people, as a culture and as a civilization.

What is a cynic? I think a cynic is a disappointed idealist. Someone whose treasured beliefs and hopes get challenged or shattered by “reality”, who then opts for the safety of having low expectations and a world weary dismissal of hope and possibility. More and more, a cynic is someone who thinks he’s become a realist, adopting the “chic” of an almost arrogant negative outlook on everything.

Since anyone who lives long enough is going to have his share of disappointment, how do we avoid becoming cynics? And if it’s true that we reap what we sow, what are we going to sow if we become increasingly cynical?

I think it’s time for a paradigm shift. One of the things I wanted to do on this CD was to play with our culture a little bit and introduce a new idea of chic- that it’s “hip to be happy.” It was fascinating to read the opening paragraph in Stephen Holden’s review of my engagement at Dizzy’s. He writes, “Ann Hampton Callaway is a good soul. Only someone resolutely on the side of the angels would write and sing a song like “Hip to Be Happy,” her jazzy rallying cry for the power of positive thinking, and really mean it. The song, which Ms. Callaway swung without a smidgen of irony at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Wednesday night, might be described as an untwisted “Twisted,” in the way it redirects the idiom of that Lambert, Hendricks and Ross standard away from neurosis and toward sweetness and light: “It’s hip to be happy/To give life a big hello/It’s hip to be happy/To say yes when the world says no.”

How surprising that a major critic of The New York Times would risk his journalistic cool to embrace this idea. Is it possible that cynicism isn’t as ubiquitous and alluring as I thought? Am I not alone? Is a paradigm shift already in the making?

Time will tell. But in the meantime I invite you, my treasured listener, to think about this subject. Look at your own life and your own philosophy and attitude and see how it affects each day and each experience you have. What things bring you happiness? What things make your shoulders relax, make you smile, make you breathe a sigh of relief and contentment? What takes your breath away? What makes you want to get up in the morning? What helps you through hard times? What inspires you to take chances? What helps you to make the best choices for your health and wellbeing? What makes you feel the most real you?

I think happiness is a skill that can be developed. And I think it’s contagious. We can become shinier people. Why not risk our dignity and beam a little more light on each other? Why not encourage rather than critique? Why not delight and surprise as a new hobby? Why not engage in the merry mischief of random acts of kindness?

I hereby dare my beloved New Yorkers and citizens of planet earth to join me in this wild and audacious experiment. Together over time, we can astonish the curmudgeons of this world with the new chic of joy. Let’s aim for the impossible and make cynicism passé!

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