Saturday, April 7, 2012
April 8th is Carmen McRae's birthday. I knew her to be a kind, generous and often funny woman, but I can also visualize her if she had lived: a physically frail, 92-year old woman sitting in a cushioned chair, snarling, bitching and bossing people around.
She loved to be in command, and once, after she admitted how deliberately miserable she'd treated an auditioning bass player, I got up the courage to ask her why on earth she was so unkind to him. "Because they all have to know IN FRONT who's in charge!" She certainly made her point over and over again. She did what she wanted to do the way she wanted to do it. HER tempo, HER choice of song, HER choice of musician. And her fans will acknowledge the results were outstanding. I am taking the liberty of giving you the story of the first time I saw her live, a piece which has been published here and at AllAboutJazz.com as well.
The First Time I Saw Carmen McRae
It was the decade of the 1960's. I had by that time lived in New York's Greenwich Village for a couple of years, and went to hear Carmen McRae when she made an appearance at one of the holy shrines of jazz located in my neighborhood, a club with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and great Italian food. This was the Half Note, and, although it was one of the best places to nosh and listen to music, it did not provide a dressing room for any of the artists who played the room, mainly because the club's favorite headliners were men. Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Dave Bailey, Bill Crow, Dave Frishberg, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Cranshaw and all the others hardly needed a room to check their appearance before going onstage. A quick comb in the Gents was adequate, and then only if they'd encountered a stiff breeze along Hudson Street. Carmen McRae arrived dressed for the gig, and like many before and since, she checked her makeup and hair in a miniscule Ladies Room.
I was mad for Carmen's sound and her interpretive skills. This fierce loyalty was born in the 1950's because a disc jockey in my home town of Providence, Rhode Island was a devoted fan. I think he also loved her from afar, and so he played her recordings almost every day. The radio: that magical device instructing a young woman fantasizing about the exotic world of jazz. I longed to be a part of it. Weekly broadcasts from Birdland nurtured the dream of places filled with the sounds of friendly laughter, musicians' laughter - intimacies exchanged in the language of the hip - and the seductive clink of glasses containing beverages guaranteed to make one feel cheerful and lightheaded.
I chose to sit in a darkened corner of the club, the better to scrutinize Carmen's every move, make note of her song selection, tempos, key changes, microphone technique ... her whole demeanor on stage. On this occasion, with her head held imperiously, she cast the famous McRae "Ray" over patrons and musicians alike. This penetrating stare had much the same effect as a sign in a field warning of the fence electrified to prevent intruders. On this night, she had been particularly haughty on stage. In spite of the fact that I might be burned to a cinder by her fiery glance, I determined I simply MUST tell her how much her singing meant to me, no matter the risk.
Cautiously, I sidled up to the bar where she stood alone near the service area. With trembling voice and weak knees, I stammered a "Pardon me, Miss McRae", and as quickly as I could, expressed my admiration and loyalty. I took a flame-thrower hit from The Ray, she mumbled "Thanks" through lips pressed tight, and turned her back to me. I managed a reasonably quick recovery, and beat a hasty retreat to my table.
Years later, by which time we had become very good friends, I asked her if she remembered the incident. She denied memory of it, adding quietly she wished she'd been nicer so that we could have begun our friendshp sooner. That precious drop of gold remains cozily embedded in my heart, along with so many other memories of a generous, funny, passionate woman.
I live with a perpetual sense of regret that she and I are no longer able to see or talk or laugh together. On any jazz station deserving the appellation, you can hear Carmen's recordings. I hope some other young singer will also hear and experience that Jolt Of Comprehension for her musical wisdom, appreciating that salty edge which distinguished Carmen from all others. That sound changed the course of my life forever so many years ago.
Carmen McRae: b. April 8, 1920; d. Nov. 10, 1994