Born April 8, 1922, in Brooklyn, NY; married Teddy Wilson (divorced); married Kenny Clark, 1946. Education: Private training in piano. Addresses: Agent-- Abby Hoffer Enterprises, 223 East 48th St., New York, NY 10017.
Carmen McRae sang and scatted in jazz clubs throughout the United States--and across the world--for over forty years. Schooled in the traditions of big bands, blues, and bebop, her style reflects an artful blend of traditional jazz with all three genres. She has strong opinions on her profession and her music; jazz, she told Down Beat magazine, "is all about improvising."
McRae's life was filled with music from the beginning. She began studying piano when she was eight, and the music of jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington filled her home. She met singer Billie Holiday when she was just 17 years old. "We became friends the moment that I met her. We used to hang around together," she told Jazz Forum. McRae still considers Holiday to be her primary influence.
Growing up in the culturally rich environment of Harlem in New York City gave McRae a strong background in the blues. "The blues is like the national anthem of jazz," she theorized in Jazz Forum. But she is not a blues singer herself. "I have sung the blues ... but more jazzy blues.... I think you have to have a special talent for [singing blues], which I don't have."
In her late teens and early twenties, McRae played piano at a New York club called Minton's, sang as a chorus girl, and worked as a secretary. She was admittedly too young and inexperienced to really make her living as a musician. However, she found herself in the right place at the right time to jam with the great pioneers of the blossoming bebop scene. McRae related in Jazz Forum: "I met [saxophonist] Charlie Parker when ... I was 18. And I met [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie and [bassist] Oscar Pettiford [and drummer Kenny Clarke]. There was a place under Minton's where we used to go. Teddy Hill, who ran Minton's, used to have the guys come in.... They would work and after the club closed, which was [at] 4 o'clock, we'd go downstairs and other guys, other musicians, would come and we'd jam awhile." She also played short stints with bandleaders such as Count Basie, Benny Carter, and Mercer Ellington.
While McRae learned to play music in New York, she learned to survive in Chicago. In 1948 she moved there with comedian George Kirby. Later, their relationship soured. As she told Down Beat magazine, a friend suggested she sing for her supper. "I was having all of those problems waiting for George to send me the check to pay the rent, and she said, 'C'mon with me.' She took me someplace to play piano and sing. I said, 'Girl, I know about seven songs,' but she just thought I was great. I thought she was crazy."
Chicago audiences thought she was great, too. She played piano steadily for almost four years before returning to New York. Those years in Chicago, McRae told Jazz Forum, "gave me whatever it is that I have now. That's the most prominent schooling I ever had."
Back in New York in the early 1950s, McRae got the record contract that launched her career. In 1954, she was voted best new female vocalist by Down Beat magazine. She had also reached the top spot as a jazz singer in the Metronome poll. For nearly four decades, she enjoyed a rich musical career, performing and recording in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
McRae's 1990 album Carmen Sings Monk was years in the making and epitomizes the uncompromising work ethic that earned her success and respect in the jazz arena. "I considered it one of the hardest projects I've ever worked on," she told Down Beat. She sorted through the music of jazz great Thelonious Monk to pick his finest tunes, had lyrics written for them, and then set out to record them. "His melodies are not easy to remember because they don't go where you think they're going to go." The reviews of the album hailed it as one of her absolute best.
This type of figurative collaboration, as well as literal collaboration, is a constant theme in McRae's work. Early in her career, she recorded an entire album of Billie Holiday songs. More recently, she recorded Sarah--Dedicated To You, an album of favorites of singer Sarah Vaughan. She has also made albums in collaboration with other jazz musicians, including singer Betty Carter, pianist Shirley Horn, and pianist Harry Connick, Jr., and she recorded Latin American sounds with musician Cal Tjader.
McRae has strong opinions about the musicians with whom she works, about her profession, and what makes a good jazz singer: "You should know an instrument to be a good jazz singer," she said in Down Beat. "Ella [Fitzgerald] plays a little piano. Sarah [Vaughan] played piano; I play piano; Shirley Horn plays. All these ladies can sing Jazz." But not everyone who professes to be a jazz singer is one. Even the best singers, according to McRae, aren't really singing jazz if they don't improvise. "You have to improvise," she continued in Down Beat, "you have to have something of your own that has to do with that song. And you have to know where you're going when you improvise." Good singing alone does not make good jazz singing, "and I'll go to court on that one."
Although McRae loves the music, she has always been less enthusiastic about other aspects of the profession, namely the traveling, and performing in the typical jazz venue, the club. "It's not easy, traveling to appear in club after club," she told Coda magazine. And jazz musicians apparently do not receive the same respect that other musicians have. "I [got] sick of having to get dressed in offices because they [didn't] have proper dressing rooms--or even full-length mirrors--in some of these clubs.... All of this really detracts. Club owners don't seem to realize that the conditions in a lot of clubs aren't conducive to getting the best performances out of an artist."
McRae became ill in 1992 and is no longer able to perform. Throughout her long and distinguished musical career, she consistently gave her best, and she remains one of the finest jazz vocalists of her era. But McRae never enjoyed the general popularity of her contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Vaughan. Because her repertoire and style adhered so firmly to a pure jazz idiom, her following remained more limited to pure jazz enthusiasts. While lack of recognition sometimes irritated her, she never compromised her own unique style. Jazz, she told Down Beat is "something in your heart, and something that is you."
by Robin Armstrong
Carmen McRae's Career
Pianist with Benny Carter and Count Basie, 1944; made first recording as pianist with Mercer Ellington Band, 1946-47; regular on jazz-club circuit, beginning in 1948; made first solo record, 1953. Film appearances include Hotel, 1967, and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1986. Television appearances include Soul, 1976, Sammy and Company, 1976, Carmen McRae in Concert, 1979, From Jumpstreet, 1980, At the Palace, 1981, Billie Holiday: A Tribute, 1981, and L. A. Jazz, 1982.
- Selective Works
- By Special Request Decca, 1955.
- After Glow Decca, 1957.
- Something to Swing About Kapp, 1959.
- The Great American Songbook Atlantic, 1972.
- Live at Birdland West Concord Jazz, 1980.
- Live at Bubba's Kingdom Jazz, 1981.
- You're Lookin' at Me Concord Jazz, 1983.
- (With Red Holloway, John Clayton, Paul Humphrey, Jack McDuff, and Phil Upchurch) Fine and Mellow (recorded in 1987), Concord Jazz, 1988.
- Carmen Sings Monk Novus, 1990.
- Sarah--Dedicated to You Novus, 1991.
- Live at Century Plaza Atlantic, 1991.
- The Ultimate Carmen McRae Mainstream Records, 1991.
- Woman Talk Mainstream Records, 1991.
- (With others) Here to Stay Decca Jazz, 1991.
- Any Old Time Denon.
- (With George Shearing) Two for the Road Concord Jazz.
- Crowther, Bruce, The Jazz Singers, Blanford Press, 1986.
- Dahl, Linda, Stormy Weather, Limelight, 1989.
- Periodicals Coda, October/November 1987.
- Down Beat, August 1990; November 1990; June 1991.
- Ebony, July 1991.
- Essence, October 1986.
- Jazz Forum, No. 2, 1990.
- Jazz Journal International, July 1988.
- People, July 2, 1990; September 2, 1991.