"The popular song is slight in scope compared to drama or opera, but it can be a high form of melodic poetry."

— Carmen McRae                                                       

Upon first meeting her she'd look you up and down and act really cool and distant but if you were interesting to her; if you had something interesting for her, she'd forget the diva shit and her brilliance would come out. Carmen is a very brilliant broad. Some people call her a bitch but she's just really, really bright and doesn't dig stupid mistakes.  And stupid, phony people aren't her bag at all.

Jm Merry, 1980                                                       

Immensely popular American jazz singer. Born April 8, 1920 in New York, NY; died November 10, 1994 in New York, NY.

Considered by jazz aficionados to be among the top ten female vocalists of all time, Carmen McRae's distinctive behind-the-beat1 phrasing, impeccable vocal control, and witty, sometimes acerbic way of conveying a lyric are what set her apart as a singularly great singer. She considered jazz great Billie Holiday to be a musical mentor.  She took many cues from Frank Sinatra's free and easy vocal stylizations. But this Queen of Cool had her own sound and style; including an amazing ability to scat2. The versatile McRae could swing hard when it was called for; next she could draw out a ballad, savoring each note and syllable without losing audience attention (similar to the style of jazz vocalist Shirley Horn).

Beginnings

McRae was fortunate enough to have been raised by a family prosperous enough to afford a piano and lessons. Early on she expressed a strong interest in an acting career.  By age twenty, her interest in music had taken over and she began singing as well as playing the piano.  Even at a young age, she was a woman with something to say and throughout her life was recognized not only for her musical talents but for her immense love for verbal expression through musical lyrics.

Her first break was getting hired as an intermission pianist at Harlem's world-famous Minton's Playhouse, a jazz club.  She became acquainted with many of the top modern jazz musicians of the time. An important influence was songwriter Irene Wilson, who introduced her to Billie Holiday.  Wilson continued to encourage McRae to write music; one of McRae's first attempts at songwriting, "Dream of Life," was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.

"If Billie Holiday hadn't existed, I probably wouldn't have, either."

— Carmen McRae, about 1991                                                       

Milestones

  • 1944:  first important engagement as vocalist for Benny Carter's orchestra
  • 1944-1946: worked with Count Basie and Earl Hines bands
  • 1946-1947: appeared and recorded with Mercer Ellington's band (Recorded under the name of "Carmen Clarke.")
  • 1946-1949: brief marriage to bebop innovator Kenny Clarke - she embraced the technically difficult bebop3 style as only a few vocalists could at the time.
  • Although she was working regularly in front of combos and accompanying herself on piano at Minton's, she was at a gig in Brooklyn when she was discovered by Decca Records' director of A&R, Milt Gabler.  She recorded twelve albums with Decca in five years.  Many of her Decca-era recordings have become important classics and must-haves for jazz collectors.
  • 1954:  Decca releases her first album as lead, Carmen McRaeDown Beat Magazine voted her "Best new female vocalist of 1954," a year when there was plenty of competition for that slot.
  • At Decca, and later at the Kapp label, Carmen McRae established herself as a versatile perfectionist. Whether the material was outré hard-bop or classics from the Great American Songbook, she made the difficult business of communicating with the listener on a deeper level sound like it was easy.
  • She befriends jazz singer Sarah "Sassy" Vaughan and they remain close friends and infrequent collaborators for the remainder of Vaughan's life.

Carmen's career reached great heights, no little feat for a jazz musician. She recorded, performed nationally and toured internationally in Europe and Japan.  She was tapped to participate in Dave Brubeck's audacious jazz operetta "The Real Ambassadors."  Other performers on this singular opus which was basically a political protest against war and in support of civil rights included Louis Armstrong and the harmony trio of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. 

The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco was the site of two of her last great recorded achievements.  1987 brought a critically acclaimed live album of duets with avant-garde jazz singer Betty Carter.  Her final great recording was 1988's "Carmen Sings Monk," on the RCA label. 

A lifelong smoker, diagnosed with emphysema, she announced her retirement in 1991, after she collapsed after a performance at New York's venerable Blue Note jazz club. She survived merely four more years.

Rumor and Innuendo

McRae partook of marijuana on a regular basis. "That's what jazz cats do," she said in the early 1980s.  Although she denied it, there is much anecdotal evidence of her dependence on cocaine.

Her willingness to be seen in public with female companions increased in her later years.  She believed that one's sexuality was a dynamic spot on a continuum, and never labeled herself either "straight" nor "lesbian" but had experiences with both men and women.

A strict perfectionist, Carmen wasn't always the easiest person to get along with in the recording studio. It's fair to say that much of the nasty rumors about McRae's personal life were only amplified by the need in  those who disliked her personally for revenge.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. "behind-the-beat" means commencing melodic notes very briefly after the downbeats in a musical score for purposes of jazz stylization.
  2. "scat" the singing of non-words; using the voice as a musical instrument for jazz solos without regard for lyrics.
  3. "bebop" or "bop" is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody.

Selected Discography

Rhino Hi-Five: Carmen McRae (Live) — released: 2006
Carmen Mcrae For Lovers — released: 2006
Boy Meets Girl: The Complete Sammy Davis and Carmen McRae Duets — released: 2005
Live At Montreux - July 22nd, 1982 — released: 2005
The Sound Of Silence — released: 2005
The Art Of Carmen Mcrae — released: 2005
For Once In My Life — released: 2005
Atlantiquity — released: 2005
Portrait Of Carmen — released: 2005
Fine And Mellow (Recall) — released: 2005
Jazz Masters — released: 2004
The Diva Series — released: 2003
Fine & Mellow: the songs of Billie Holiday — released: 2003
At Ratso's Vol. 1 — released: 2002
At Ratso's Vol. 2 — released: 2002
Carmen Sings Monk — released: 2001
Superwoman: Live On Stage — released: 2001
New York State Of Mind — released: 2000
Ms. Jazz (Giants Of Jazz) — released: 2000
Carmen McRae's Finest Hour — released: 2000
Immortal Concerts — released: 2000
Ballad Essentials — released: 1999
Sound Of Jazz Volume 9 — released: 1999
Dream Of Life — released: 1998
Priceless Jazz Collection — released: 1998
The Collected Carmen McRae — released: 1998
It Takes A Whole Lot Of Human Feeling — released: 1997
Ms. Jazz (Pickwick) — released: 1997
More Of The Best — released: 1996
Some Of The Best — released: 1996
I'll Be Seeing You — released: 1995
The Best Of Carmen McRae — released: 1995
For Lady Day Vol. 2 — released: 1995
For Lady Day — released: 1995
I'm Coming Home Again — released: 1994
Live At Bubba's — released: 1994
Sings Great American Songwriters — released: 1993
Here To Stay — released: 1992
The Ultimate Carmen McRae — released: 1991
Jazz Collector Edition — released: 1991
Sarah-Dedicated To You — released: 1991
Setting Standards — released: 1991
The Great American Songbook — released: 1988
Fine and Mellow — released: 1988
Any Old Time — released: 1986
Heat Wave — released: 1982
Carmen: Live At Midem — released: 1979
Live At Ronnie Scott's — released: 1977
As Time Goes By (JVC) — released: 1977
Can't Hide Love — released: 1976
Velvet Soul — released: 1973
Just A Little Lovin' — released: 1970
The Sound Of Silence/Portrait Of Carmen — released: 1968
Woman Talk — released: 1965
Alive! — released: 1965
Take Five — released: 1965
Bittersweet — released: 1964
Something Wonderful — released: 1963
Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man — released: 1962
Birds Of A Feather — released: 1958
Blue Moon — released: 1956
Carmen McRae — released: 1954

SOURCES:

  • http://www.ddg.com/LIS/InfoDesignF96/Ismael/jazz/1950/McRae.html
  • http://www.bluebirdjazz.com/artists/artist.jsp?id=106614
  • http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:judsyl28xp9b~T1
  • http://www.gallery41.com/JazzArtists/CarmenMcRae.htm
  • http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/carmenmcrae/biography
  • http://www.swing2bop.com/archive.html
  • Gourse, Leslie "Miss Jazz: Carmen McRae," Billboard Books, 2001
  • Interview:  James J. Merry, 1980
  • Experience of the writer with the artist.

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