Carmen McRae

Biography

Even almost a decade after her death in 1994, Carmen McRae remains an institution unto herself. Born in Harlem, she studied piano as a child and her parents encouraged her to go classical, but the world of jazz and what she called the Great American Songbook was beckoning. For a time she also wrote songs, and as a teenager she came to the attention of one of the power couples of the jazz world, piano star Teddy Wilson and composer Irene Kitchings Wilson. Through their influence, one of McRae’s early songs, "Dream of Life", was recorded by Teddy Wilson’s longtime collaborator Billie Holiday.

Unfortunately, this early success did not immediately lead to a career as writer or performer. By the late Forties she was well known among the young modern jazz musicians who gathered at Minton’s, Harlem’s most famous inside after-hours joint, but her talent seemed doomed not to reach out beyond that world until 1953. It was while working in Brooklyn that she happened to come to the attention of a tiny independent record label, and thankfully the records she made for that concern happened to fall on the ears of Decca’s Milt Gabler, one of the great talent scouts in the history of jazz.

Her five-year association with Decca (and its brother label, Kapp Records) served both to make her a bona fide singing star and to yield what would ultimately prove to be the most consistently excellent series of recordings of her entire forty-year career. These twelve LPs, indeed, rank among the greatest vocal records of all time. McRae is simultaneously cool and cutting-edge sharp, relaxed and swinging, putting over all manner of material in all manner of settings. These range from trios (none better than that led by pianist Ray Bryant on After Glow) or her own piano (By Special Request) to swinging big bands (led by Tadd Dameron on Blue Moon, Ralph Burns on Torchy, or Ernie Wilkins on Something to Swing About), a full-sized string orchestra (Book of Ballads, When You’re Away), and experimental jazz groups boasting such unusual accoutrements as accordion (By Special Request) and cello (Carmen for Cool Ones). She also tackles such unusual subjects for a jazz singer as, on Mad About the Man, the songs of Noël Coward, and, on Birds of a Feather, songs about our feathered friends.

This isn’t to imply that the remaining thirty years of her recording career were anything less than wonderful. As the years wore on, she developed an increasingly world-weary attitude in her singing. Contrastingly, the freshness and vitality of these, her earliest notable recordings, is remarkable. These tracks announced the coming of a major new artist, one whose light would be hidden under a bushel no more, and nearly fifty years later they retain their power.

Will Friedwald

Excerpted from: Carmen McRae’s Finest Hour