Carmen Mercedes McRae was born April 8, 1920. From her All About Jazz profile, by musician profile editor and record reviewer biographer James Nadal:
Considered by jazz aficionados to be among the top ten female vocalists of all time, Carmen McRae's distinctive behind-the-beat 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. But this Queen of Cool had her own sound and style; including an amazing ability to scat. 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; she was in a class by herself.
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.
The definitive Carmen McRae website, “developed by Joan Merrill, producer of the NPR Jazz Profile, Carmen McRae,” has a wealth of information on her music and her history.
This site strives to present a complete picture of Carmen McRae the artist. The biography is approached in several ways – from the perfunctory listing in the Grove Dictionary of Jazz to a timeline from Leslie Gourse’s book, Miss Jazz, to audio clips from NPR interviews with Carmen. Carol Sloane and Hammond Guthrie tell charming stories of their first encounter with the singer, and colleagues such as Mundell Lowe, who played guitar on Carmen's first major recording, and John Clayton, who led his orchestra on one of her last albums, speak about her artistry.
Carmen’s recording history is described in detail, with critical analysis interspersed with album listings.
(For example, Norman Simmons, Carmen’s accompanist and musical director during the 1960s, makes particularly astute observations about her unique style.) A page is devoted to each of the 51 original albums, with a photo of the cover and musician and track listings.
The Press section contains historical articles from Down Beat, The New York Times and Time, beginning in 1954, when Carmen was named Best New Female Jazz Singer by Down Beat, and ending with a 1991 interview in the same magazine in which the veteran singer looks at the current jazz scene with a jaundiced eye. That was the year her career ended, with what would be her last recording (Sarah) and final performance (at the Blue Note.)
From the Pacifica Radio Archives comes this 1977 interview with McRae, conducted in San Francisco by activist and scholar Angela Davis. McRae talks about her family, and how she got started in the music business. She then explores working with Charlie Parker and other jazz greats. Davis also explores with McRae the feminist aspect of McRae’s repertoire.
Carmen McRae joined the ancestors in November 1994.
Betty Carter was a decade younger than McRae, yet they are considered to be part of the same jazz generation. Kyle Kevorkian wrote her bio for Musician Guide.
Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in Detroit and as a high school student studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. It was a time when a brilliant and bold new music was sweeping the country: bebop, the postwar jazz style that was being pioneered by the great saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, and horn player Dizzy Gillespie. Lillie Mae was immediately turned on to it. She often "played hookey at the soda joint across the street from my high school and listened to the jukebox, which was filled with bebop singles," she told Pulse! "We would sit around and learn the solos, and go to see them whenever they came to town--we met Bird and Dizzy when they came to our school." Soon she was singing Sunday afternoon cabaret gigs; by the age of 18 she had sat in with Bird, Dizzy, trumpeter Miles Davis, and other greats. Her first employer, though, was not a bebopper but a veteran of swing music--the vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. In a 1988 interview with AP writer Campbell, Carter recounted their first meeting: "I went with some classmates to hear Lionel's band. We were standing in front of the bandstand. A guy said, 'Why don't you let Lillie Mae sing?' That was my name then. He said, 'Can you sing, Gates?' I said yes. He said, 'Then come on up, Gates.'"
The impromptu audition landed her a job. From 1948 to 1951 she toured with Hampton, standing in front of his big band and scatting (improvising with nonsense syllables) segments of the tunes they played. "I didn't get a chance to sing too many songs because Hamp had a lot of other singers at the same time; but I took care of the bebop division, you might say," she told Pulse! with a chuckle. "He'd stick me into songs they were already doing, so I was singing a chorus here, a chorus there; I didn't realize at the time what good training that was. And I had the late Bobby Plater teach me to orchestrate and transpose, which I really needed later on." While she was learning from Hampton she was also learning from his wife. "I had this role model of Gladys Hampton to emulate. She took care of the band, saw to it that everything ran smoothly, that everybody got paid and such. That was the first time I'd ever experienced dealing with a woman who was the boss--and she was a black woman. It was very unusual at that time, and still is."
Spoiler alert: Carter would not go on to reach the kind of fame that many think she deserved—but she would live up to those lessons she learned from Gladys Hampton.
All That Jazz picks up Carter’s story:
Ray Charles, on a recommendation from Miles Davis, agreed to take Betty on tour with him in the late 1950s. Enchanted by her voice and looking for a partner to record a series of duets, he enlisted Ms. Carter in a project that became Ray Charles and Betty Carter. The album, recorded in 1961, became an instant critical and popular smash; the single Baby It's Cold Outside gave Betty her first introduction into the popular music scene (indeed, at the 1997 White House ceremony where President Clinton presented Ms. Carter with a National Medal of Arts, the President said, "Hearing her sing 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' makes you want to curl up in front of the fire, even in summertime."). The sessions took on almost legendary status; after fifteen years in the business, fame had found Betty Carter.
I was pleased to see some love for the Charles-Carter duet on Twitter while working on this story!
Back to the bio:
And Betty Carter chose her family. She was raising two sons at the time, Myles and Kagle Redding, and chose to concentrate on that rather than capitalize on her recent success. Other than the 1963 Atco album Round Midnight (which showcased a different side of Betty that many critics strongly disliked), and a very short 1964 United Artists album called Inside Betty Carter, she made no recordings between 1961 and 1968. She still performed, doing club dates mostly around the New York area, but the name of Betty Carter eventually faded back into obscurity again. By 1969, though, Betty was ready to get back into music. The problem was - no one seemed to want her.
She started her road back with a live recording on the Roulette album. Finally - Betty Carter (an apt title) is considered one of her finest works, but it didn't garner much interest at the time. A second live recording, again titled 'Round Midnight, met with the same fate. Unable to drum up enough interest and tired of trying to satisfy the demands of recording companies, she came up with a solution - she founded her own company. Bet-Car was founded in 1971, and would be the sole source of her recordings until she signed with Verve in 1988.
Carmen McRae wasn’t the only one who knew Angela Davis.
If you’ve never seen independent filmmaker Michelle Parkerson’s documentary But Then She’s Betty Carter, you are in for a treat. Take 50 minutes away from whatever you’re doing and let yourself be dazzled. The 1980 film features Betty Carter on vocals with the Betty Carter Trio: Greg Bandy on drums, Curtis Lundy on bass, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. There’s even an appearance by Lionel Hampton, from a concert at Howard University, interspersed with interview footage.
In 1987, magic happened. McRae and Carter performed live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, the recording of which was released on American Music Hall Records. Verve Records would reissue it in 1996 with the title Duets: Live at the Great American Music Hall.
Sit back and take a listen to the musical magic they made together on these four tracks.
First up: “What’s New?”
Next up: Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.”
Here’s “But Beautiful.”
Finally, listen to them take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
If I had the space I’d post every track!
Interestingly, when Samara Joy was being interviewed by NPR’s Michel Martin last month, she asked her to sing “a couple of bars of something,” and Joy picked “Sophisticated Lady.”
Listen to Joy perform the song at SUNY Purchase—when she was a student, not yet a two-time Grammy winner!
Samara Joy McLendon was born Nov. 11, 1999. Her website bio relates some of her story.
Samara is still relatively new to jazz. Growing up in the Bronx, it was music of the past — the music of her parents’ childhoods, as she put it — that she listened to most. She treasures her musical lineage, which stretches back to her grandparents Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, both of whom performed with Philadelphia gospel group the Savettes, and runs through her father, who is a singer, songwriter and producer who toured with gospel artist Andraé Crouch. “Sometimes I catch myself when I’m singing — I’m like, ‘Whoa, that was a dad moment’,” Samara quips. Eventually, she did follow in the family tradition, singing in church and then with the jazz band at Fordham High School for the Arts, with whom she won Best Vocalist at JALC’s Essentially Ellington competition. That led to her enrolling in SUNY Purchase’s jazz studies program, where she fell deeply in love with the music.
Though she’s young, she relishes the process of digging through the music’s history and learning new standards. “I think maybe people connect with the fact that I’m not faking it, that I already feel embedded in it,” Samara says. “Maybe I’m able to reach people in person and on social media because it’s real.” The gatekeepers of the jazz world tend to agree: in 2019, she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, and she’s since performed with legends like Christian McBride and Bill Charlap. Legendary late pianist Barry Harris was a particularly important influence and mentor. “You inspired me as well as many others with this fire for teaching and playing that couldn’t be dimmed by anything or anyone,” Samara writes in Linger Awhile’s liner notes, dedicating the project in part to Harris’ memory.
Marrying Samara’s interest in classic standards as well as crate-digging is her take on the iconic Thelonious Monk tune “‘Round Midnight” — instead of the traditional lyrics, Samara sings those written by Jon Hendricks, which she had only heard in a vintage TV performance by Carmen McRae. “Those lyrics haven’t been recorded that much — so even though it’s a song that a lot of people know, this is a different take on it,” Samara says. It’s the only song on the album that includes a horn section, including trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist Donavan Austin, and finally tenor saxophonist Kendric McCallister, who is responsible for the arrangement, a transformation of Cootie Williams’ original.
Here’s Joy’s full interview with Michel Martin. (Transcript here.)
Martin raised an interesting question.
MICHEL MARTIN: You know, it’s funny, people forget that jazz — you know, this is even before my time — that jazz was pop music, you know, back in the day. Jazz was dance music. People did go to like, you know, The Speakeasies’ and dance halls and listen to jazz. It wasn’t just something you sit, you know, quietly and, you know, it was the pop music of the time, at least for the people that, you know, have listened to it. And I just wonder as, you know, being so young, do you ever worry that the art form itself has not — it does not hold the place in the culture that it used to?
SAMARA JOY: I’m not worried because I think that the nature of it — the nature of the music, I mean, is to progress through the artist who contribute their musicality. And so, I think that it stood the test of time so far and there are many artists kind of behind the scenes, although, I — you know, I know them, you know, because the jazz community is very — even though it’s widespread, you know, around the world, it’s very small and everybody knows everybody. So, yes, I think it’s bound to continue. I think, you know, being on platforms like Instagram and TikTok will definitely help to share and connect my peer with it hopefully. But it’s like, I’m not feeling any sort of pressure to like make sure it doesn’t die. It’s like, it was here long before I was, and it’s going to continue, hopefully, long after I’m gone.
As long as we have artists like Samara Joy, I agree: Jazz is not going anywhere.
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: The future of jazz looks bright, thanks to Black women around the world
I’ll close with Joy’s version of “But Beautiful,” which we also heard McRae and Carter tackle above.
Join me in the comments for even more from these three amazing vocalists, and let’s see if they don’t become some of your favorites by the time we’re done.
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