"Over the Rainbow" may forever be Judy Garland's song, but jazz diva Jane Monheit is putting her own stamp on it. Ms. Monheit, now in her 20s, first sang the Harold Arlen classic when she was 2 years old. Last year, she performed it on the soundtrack of the retro sci-fi movie "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. And it is the concluding cut on her fifth CD, "Taking a Chance on Love."
"If I do a show and don't do 'Rainbow,' there's always someone who comes and asks me why," Monheit says. "I do it every night. It can be read so many ways. It's really not about rainbows or Kansas or anything like that."
Garland's life is never far from Monheit's mind when she performs "Rainbow." "I have never had to go through the ridiculous amount of heartache that she went through her entire life," she says.
Monheit, who has movie star looks and a career that's been steadily on the rise since she won acclaim at the 1998 Thelonious Monk vocal competition, knows that she doesn't fit the stereotype of the troubled jazz singer.
"People ask me all the time: How can you sing this music? You're not miserable. You're happily married," says Monheit, sitting inside Boston's Scullers Jazz Club, where she performed last week. "I think that everyone has forgotten where Ella [Fitzgerald] was coming from. Where Mel Tormé was coming from. Where Frank Sinatra was coming from. These people sang with so much joy."
Jazz legend Fitzgerald is Monheit's favorite artist. "For Ella, music was all about happiness," she says. "There's always a sense of hopefulness in anything Ella ever sang. And I'm like that, too. Music comes out of the good parts of my life. I think jazz can be just as much about the great sides of our lives as it can be about the dark sides."
Monheit's intense touring schedule over the past five years has been bearable because her husband, Rick Montalbano, a talented drummer, has been playing in her backup quartet. "It's the greatest," she says. "I could not do it any other way. We share everything musically. We really do."
While she sees herself in the music business for the long run, she also wants to have children and sees a strong family life as insulation against the inevitable ups and downs of show business. "Family is always going to be my first priority," she says. "It's wonderful to have a career and that's something that I've always dreamed of doing. But I could never let it be my entire life."
Perhaps recognizing that jazz has a limited following, Monheit says she considers herself as simply a singer, not a jazz singer. Though she's more than ready to scat and twist tunes with peppy abandon, she also can sell a ballad with a voice as silky and sweet as a crème brûlée.
"I just like to sing good songs," she says. "That's all I care about."
Her current CD harks back to tunes made famous in MGM musicals, including the Cole Porter standards "In the Still of the Night" and "Why Can't You Behave?" But her live show also features newer fare, topped by an aching rendition of Burt Bacharach's "Alfie" and a Latin influence, including "Caminhos Cruzados," a haunting bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim. (A club in Rio de Janeiro called Mistura Fina is "my all-time favorite place to play," she says. "The audiences are incredible. They sing along.")
Her audience at Scullers is mostly middle-aged, but Monheit says her following seems to be slowly skewing younger, right down to children brought by their parents. Some of the new fans relate to the lyrics so closely they think that she must have written them. "Of course, I wish I did!" she says. "Part of the reason I sing these songs is to make sure that young people know about them. So I always make sure I tell people about the composers."
Monheit performed in a lot of musical theater while growing up on Long Island, and she hopes it might be in her future too. "I miss it. I do some auditions [for shows] from time to time. Hopefully it's in the cards for me." As a singer, she finds an acting background "helps you come in touch with your own emotions and be unafraid about expressing yourself."
For relaxation, she listens to nearly every musical genre and professes a liking for rap's reigning bad boy, Eminem. Most recently she's taken to Tenacious D, a rock band featuring comedic actor Jack Black. "All the lyrics are really, really funny," she says. "It's total boy music. But I love it."
This weekend, she's back in New York at the Blue Note jazz club. Next month she and her quartet fly to Japan for a tour. "You travel halfway around the world, and there are 1,000 people [in the audience] who know your music and want to hear you sing," she says. "It's incredible."