Christopher Howatt always took a liking to the music of the Big Band era, the 1930s and ’40s, ever since he was a 5-year-old going off to watch his mother take piano lessons.
“I liked it so much that I pestered her enough to make her let me have lessons,” said Howatt, a Weehawken resident. “And as early as I can remember, I’ve liked the music of that era, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins.”
It didn’t take long for Howatt to realize that he wanted to pursue a career in music, like soon after that first piano lesson with his mother.
“I was singing and performing all through high school,” Howatt said. “I went to Syracuse University and majored in vocal performance. I started out as a music major, but then realized I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist. I just pursued my voice.”
At the time, there were other talented performers attending voice and theater classes at Syrcause, like Vanessa Williams and the creator of NBC’s “West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin.
“I loved it there and considered staying in Syracuse,” Howatt said. “I got a few jobs as the musical director in local theaters.”
Howatt also started Syracuse’s first all-children’s theater, featuring children ages four through 18. But he finally gave in and with the lure of New York beckoning, he returned to his native New Jersey roots.
While in New York, Howatt got jobs performing in dinner theater, singing in the Catskills, in Atlantic City and on assorted cruise ships.
“I was doing a lot of different things at the time,” Howatt explained.
While performing on one cruise, he met Dana Merritt, a singer who had appeared in such Broadway productions as Fiddler on the Roof, 42nd Street, Applause, Mame and Cabaret.
“We wanted to try to do something sophisticated and elegant, performing the standard hits that everyone loves,” Howatt said. “Nothing holds up like the standards. So we decided to start a group together. We then thought of names and were kicking around ideas. We’re from the East and we sing standards, so Eastern Standard Time was sort of catchy and had a nice hook to it.”
Eastern Standard Time made its debut in 1997, and Howatt and Merritt have been performing together ever since, along with assorted soprano singers.
Since then, Eastern Standard Time has performed at a variety of prestigious events, like the American Bar Association Convention, the Manhattan School of Music and the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 10th Anniversary at Town Hall, sharing the stage with Cybill Shepherd and Michael Feinstein.
Currently, Bonnie Rapp, who also has experience on the Broadway stage, including the concert version of Pippin, has joined the group.
Tonight (Sunday, Dec. 17), beginning at 5:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time will perform its “Home for the Holidays” show at Judy’s Chelsea Supper Club, located at 169 Eighth Avenue, between 18th and 19th Streets, in Manhattan.
In celebration for the holidays, Eastern Standard Time will offer new arrangements, under Howatt’s direction, of holiday standards, some favorites from the group’s current show and a sneak-peek at what the group will perform in the coming year.
“It’s a wonderful show,” Howatt said. “I really love the holidays. I’ve been writing my fingers off, arranging the music. We have some really nice holiday music mixed in with our regular stuff.”
Howatt also loves to perform at Judy’s Chelsea Supper Club, which is a perfect venue for his group.
“We consider it home, because we’ve been there so often,” Howatt said. “That’s why it’s home for the holidays. It’s a wonderful room and a place that I feel good about bringing people to.”
Howatt has also secured Judy’s for 2001, in a regularly scheduled event called “Second Sunday Soirees,” where EST will perform on the second Sunday of the month in January, February and March.
Between gigs, Howatt works as the associate director in charge of public relations for the famed George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
But music remains his passion, since he was a youngster.
“I guess pestering my mother into piano lessons is finally paying off,” Howatt laughed. “We’re doing pretty well these days.”
For the holidays.
Eastern Standard Time performs at Judy’s Chelsea Supper Club, located at 169 Eighth Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets, in New York tonight at 5:30 p.m. There is a $15 cover charge per person with a $10 food/drink minimum. For reservations, call (212) 929-5410. You can also check out Eastern Standard Time’s website at www.angelfire.com/nj/EasternStandardTime/index.html, where you can even hear some song samples.