Thursday, December 22, 2011

Carmen McRae – A Grande Dame of Jazz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“There's always a tigerish feel to her best vocals - no woman has ever sung in the Jazz idiom with quite such beguiling surliness as McRae.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Carmen McRae is the true grande dame of jazz. Like so many of the best women Jazz singers, including her friends Shirley Horn and the late Sarah Vaughan, Carmen is an accomplished pianist. This means she not only has a feeling for harmony, she has true knowledge of it. Carmen always knows exactly what she is doing.

The term ‘Jazz singer’ is a dubious one, and Sarah Vaughan objected to it. It means many things to many people, including merely a style that entails a cer­tain indefinable jazz feeling. If it means anything specific, it surely denotes some­one who can improvise with the voice. In a well-made song, the intervals of the music bear a significant relationship to the natural inflections of the words, and to alter the melody compromises the mean­ing and diminishes the dramatic effect of the song as a whole. Unfortunately, that is exactly what all too many ‘Jazz singers’ do. Carmen is a spectacular exception. When she changes the melodic intervals, she somehow, mysteriously, deepens the song, increasing the impact of the words.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz writer and critic

“No singer since [Billie] Holiday had been more adept at singing behind the beat than McRae, or more skilled at shifting from an intimate conversational delivery to hard-edged reconfigurations of melody and lyric.”
- Ted Gioia, A History of Jazz

“No singer was more stubbornly verbal than Carmen McRae, who inflected words as though she were giving them a tongue-lashing. McRae was famously outspoken and her songs had a similarly tart ap­peal. You didn't necessarily turn to her for profane insight into the song­writer's art, but you occasionally got it anyway. This is especially true of the numerous [Billie] Holiday tunes she covered.

If Holiday made the word ‘love’ shimmer with unrequited longing, McRae cast it in caustic languor. Consider her 1965 live recording of "No More": Holiday sang the line, ‘you ain't gonna bother me no more no how,’ as if trying to key up her resolve; McRae phrased those words as if she had a gun in her purse.
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz [paragraphing modified]

There was noting quite like hearing Carmen McRae sing, especially in-person.

To my ears, she was the epitome of a song stylist, but watching her style a song was a captivating and beguiling experience. I told her once that she was my “witchy woman,” to which she laughingly replied: “Be careful, or I’ll put a spell on you.”

Of course, she knew. She already had.

And it wasn’t only me. Carmen had a way of enchanting anyone who ever caught her in performance.

The reason was simple. She loved singing Jazz and she was good at it. She knew it, the musicians who backed her knew it and we knew it.  And if you were in her presence while she doing her thing, you knew that you were in for the thrill of your life.

What Carmen served up during her performances was akin to a musical feast: phrasing lyrics with meaning and understanding; picking tempos that were always just right; scatting – just enough – while employing the cleverest of harmonies; and just when you thought that you didn’t have room for dessert, she’d offered up a stomping version of “I Cried for You” or “Three Little Words” and leave you screaming for more.


I always sensed a great sadness in Carmen, too. The weightiness and gravity with which she handled certain ballads bespoke of a life with its share of disappointments.

She was nobody’s fool, but few of us go through life without some emotional bumps and bruises and it appeared to me that Carmen had had her share of these, including some personal relationships that didn’t work out.

It was easy to catch the sense of this if you listened closely to her banter between tunes or observed her knowing facial or lyrical expressions when she sang romantic ballads.

Carmen brought the Jazz musician’s life to her music,  a life which was never an easy one, even during the best of times.

I loved seeing her work at a club whether it was at Sugar Hill in San Francisco, or P.J.’s  on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood or at Donte’s Jazz Club in North Hollywood, CA.

Can you imagine a rhythm section made up of Joe Pass on guitar, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Chuck Domanico on bass and Chuck Flores on drums backing Carmen at an intimate Jazz club located only a 10-minute drive from my home?

Welcome to my world in 1972 when Carmen worked a week at Donte’s.

The room was loaded with musicians during her appearance and Carmen was always gracious about visiting with as many of them as possible during the breaks between sets.


With her signature – “Hey baby, what’s happening?” – she come up to your table and there would be hugs and giggles all around.

She was a queen who deserved to be an empress. Those of us who understood this treated her royally and gave her the respect that she merited.

In return, she bestowed upon us a treasure chest filled with rendition after rendition of great vocal Jazz.

Thankfully, much of her gift has been saved on recordings.

While I’m grateful for the recorded legacy of her music, there was nothing quite like watching her weave her special charms into a song while sitting three feet away from her in a Jazz club.

When you were around Carmen, "baby," it was always “happening.”

We put together the following video tribute to her with the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.  It features Carmen singing Let There Be Love accompanied by Norman Simmons on piano, Victor Sproles on bass and Stu Martin on drums.