Carmen McRae

August 7, 2012

One day in the late 1980s, a phone call from Jazz Journal, alerted me to the news that jazz singer Carmen McRae was appearing in London; not only that, she had also agreed to an interview. Was I interested? Of course I was.

I cannot recall exactly when I became captivated by Carmen McRae’s singing, but ever since that moment she has held a very important place in my heart and mind. Why do I hold her in such high regard? This is something that is hard to explain using merely words; easier by far to let the lady herself demonstrate. Take just one example of her art: a track from her album Birds Of A Feather (Verve 589 515-2); the song Skylark, composed by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and here arranged by Ralph Burns.  Carmen-McRae-CDWith seemingly effortless ease, Carmen bathes the evocative lyric in the beautifully limpid sound she produces. When singing from the Great American Songbook, she often delivers songs in an almost straight fashion, turning them into jazz performances with occasional, subtly understated touches achievable only by a true jazz singer. In this particular instance, at the end of a phrase, she bends a note that not only makes the song a jazz vocal classic but also serves to send tenor saxophonist Ben Webster soaring majestically into flight for a perfectly-shaped solo. Hear Carmen’s Skylark just once and you know it is a definitive performance, hear it often and you never tire of it and, as implied, even superlatives cannot describe it in words.

So, back to that interview for Jazz Journal. Well, it never happened. As I explained to the magazine’s Editor (back then, Eddie Cook), I was going on a long-planned vacation; hotel booked, airline tickets in my pocket. So maybe next time. Well, there never was a next time. Not too long afterwards, in 1994, Carmen McRae was gone. Do I regret that missed opportunity? Of course I do. Today, some decades later, I cannot remember anything of that vacation. I am certain, though, that had I met Carmen McRae, I would remember every moment.

How do I imagine her? Hard to say; from interviews it is clear that she knew her own mind, had a strong will, and occasional hints emerge that she was not someone to suffer fools gladly. If so, she sounds like someone to respect and admire in whatever she did; because she was also responsible for many of the finest interpretations of popular song, that respect and admiration is re-doubled. I could go on about this outstanding jazz singer, but I won’t – because I cannot begin to match CARMEN McRAE, the definitive website. Dedicated to the artist’s life and work, Joan Merrill has gathered here just about everything anyone could ever want to know – biography, recording history, film and TV appearances, informed comments from songwriters and today’s jazz singers, and much more. For lovers of jazz, jazz singing, jazz singers, this should not be missed.

 

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