Twenty-five years ago, a talented young musician ventured here from Fort Wayne, Ind., to try her luck in the big city.
Today, Beckie Menzie stands at the center of Chicago cabaret, her work as accompanist indispensable to uncounted singers, her efforts as instructor honing new generations of artists (and old ones, as well), her duo with Chicago singer Tom Michael engaging audiences here and across the country.
Time flies when you're collaborating with so many other artists, so it seems thoroughly fitting that Menzie will take a moment this weekend to mark her silver anniversary with a rare solo show. Though she'll be accompanied by two excellent Chicago jazz musicians — bassist Jim Cox and drummer Phil Gratteau — this performance will be all about Menzie: her life, her music, her journey.
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"Usually, I'm the one who says (to another artist): 'How can we help you be better?'" explains Menzie, who on Sunday afternoon will perform "Celebrate Me Home: 25 Years of Chicago, Music & Me" at the Mayne Stage.
This time, though, "I'm not afraid to say: 'Here I am,'" she adds. "This is me throwing a party to say thank you."
Actually, the thanks ought to go to Menzie, who brings a jazz musician's sensibility to her accompanying and happens to be a knowing vocalist, as well. Through the years, she has enriched shows by everyone from Karen Mason and the aforementioned Tom Michael to the parades of singers who take the stage weekly during the "Monday Night Live" open-mic sessions at Petterino's, in the Loop.
Menzie's long and distinguished tenure here has included a 19-year run at the now-shuttered Gentry of Chicago; her ongoing engagement at Petterino's; and uncounted engagements at the city's top cabaret, Davenport's, where she plays for the open-mic sessions on Wednesday nights and appears in a variety of showcase performances, as well.
Why has Menzie become so integral to Chicago cabaret? Great musicianship always is in demand, but there's something more to it too.
"When she plays the piano, it's like an orchestra," singer Michael told me three years ago, acknowledging the sensitivity of her vocals, as well. "I much prefer to sing with Beckie over singing (by) myself. My voice feels complete when Beckie's beside me."
Many artists feel that way. When Mason played her "Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!" show at Davenport's in December, the already formidable Mason became still more effective, thanks to Menzie's sly keyboard commentary and warmly supportive vocals.
Menzie attributes her success to what she found in Chicago.
"I grew up in a small, really small rural town, and then I lived in Fort Wayne, but when I moved to Chicago, the first week I was here I felt like I was home, which I never really felt before," she says.
"I found a community here I could learn from and contribute to.
"I think that (Chicago) offered for me all the blessings of the Midwest. … Never had a desire to move to New York. I've had people say I should move there, that it would make my career stronger.
"I always say my life is stronger here, my life is richer here."
Moreover, Menzie often has played New York venues — from Carnegie Hall on down — frequently with singer Michael.
Back home, she enjoys the kind of support that's hard to find in any town. When she turned 40, she notes, 297 friends got together to buy her a grand piano.
"Who does that?" she says.
And when she suffered serious personal losses, those who love her music rushed to her aid.
"This darn community supported me when my husband died," says Menzie of Earl Moshinsky, whom Menzie lost in June 2009 — two years after her best friend, theater director Roy Hine, died in 2007 and months before her mother died in 2010.