At 62, the boyishly enthusiastic jazz singer and songwriter Mark Winkler has the moxie and perspective to mine and enlarge the jazz elements of pop songs from the 1960s and ’70s. His latest, “The Laura Nyro Project” (Café Pacific), is his 12th album under his own name. Through it, he learned some things about the songs, his family and himself that he hadn’t foreseen.
Winkler’s mother sang with Los Angeles bands in Hollywood Boulevard clubs as Marceline Marlowe. Her marriage to Ervin Winkler, the son of a rabbi, may have ended her career, but she still sang. Friday nights at the Winkler home in Carthay Circle were competitive sing-alongs. Mark and his two brothers — Bob and Dick — had to wait their turn: “I was 11 before they let me sing!”
“My mom was a tough cookie,” Winkler averred. “She was from the South Side of Chicago, and she had poker parties every Monday. Her friends were all characters — with their teased hair, cigarettes and Hadassah voices — complaining about their husbands. They were really interesting women.
“Mom hated singers who oversold a song — ‘show-boating’ she called it. She loved Ethel Waters, Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes and Mama Cass. She taught me to memorize lyrics and not breathe in the middle of a line.”
There was little question that Winkler would sing. “I started reading Billboard at 8,” he said. At Los Angeles High School, he sang in the choir in a majority black student body. “The school was great,” he said. His friends turned him onto jazz albums, and broadcaster Johnny Magnus got to him with Ella Fitzgerald and other great voices. Winkler later returned the compliment through his “D.J. in L.A.” song.
A Hollywood record store brought Winkler face-to-face with Laura Nyro’s now-iconic album, “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.” “She was like a madonna on that cover,” Winkler recalled with a touch of awe. “I listened to that album every day for two years, and her music has been with me ever since.” The Italian-Jewish Bronx diva came across like Anna Magnani in a gospel choir, singing of love, despair, salvation and redemption.
As a gay teenager, Winkler was bowled over by the songs and by Nyro’s emotionally charged performances. “There was nothing cool about her,” he said. “The songs came out of soul music, Broadway, jazz, and she sang doo-wop on the corners. Well, that’s where I came from, too. And her songs spoke about my life.”
Winkler’s grandfather, a Hungarian immigrant named Mayer Winkler, helped found Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “On the High Holy Days,” Mark said, “my dad used to open the Torah on the stage. It’s called a bimah?” he said, laughing. “I’m not a very good Jew. But I loved all the cantorial stuff with the minor chords. I could hear some of that in Laura’s songs. Her imagery was very Catholic — always talking about the devil and salvation — but she had Eli in there, too.”
In the late 1960s, American pop was awash in great singer-songwriters writing new chapters to the Great American Songbook; in addition to Nyro were Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Joni Mitchell. Where Mitchell became the sun-kissed muse of Laurel Canyon, Nyro was dark and mysterious — singing with black gospel abandon and whispering into the mic between numbers.
Beginning in 1976, author and music historian Harvey Kubernik (next month, Santa Monica Press will release his book “Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles, 1956-1972”) knew Nyro. “We were phone buddies,” he explained, “the last 10 years of her life. She predated the arrival of women cantors and sounded the shofar for everybody.”
“Underneath it all,” Kubernik advised, “she was a giggly girl. She said, ‘Remember: The top half is Italian, but the bottom half is still Jewish.’ I said the word ‘chick’ to her once, and she said, ‘You calling me a chick? I like that!’ ”
While recording his album, Winkler had an epiphany. “My dad was bipolar,” he soberly related. “But he wasn’t diagnosed until ’68. A couple of times a year, he’d just take off, and we wouldn’t see him for about a month. I was doing ‘He’s a Runner,’ and all of a sudden it hit me: I was singing to my mom about my dad. I got pretty emotional, but it was healing at the same time.”
Winkler recognizes wisdom when it’s handed to him: “I’m smart enough to know that if a song is meaningful to me, it touches my life in some way.”
Mark Winkler performs at Upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City on June 7 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.vitellosjazz.com.