Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Happy Birthday Carmen ...
HERE SHE IS, TOTALLY IMMERSED AND OBLIVIOUS TO ALL BUT THE LYRIC.
This a brief but deeply affectionate remembrance of Carmen McRae, a modest tribute on her birthdate. No discography or scholarly discourse about her vocal technique, vast repertoire, skills as a pianist, or her notoriously volatile personality. (Speaking of which, I stood in the direct line of fire at least twice in our long relationship. She once cut off all communication with me for over a year because I forgot to fill an ice tray taken from the freezer of her refrigerator). But we remained fast friends in spite of it all up to the end of her life.
Carmen was born on this date in 1920. I will always remember her as my girl friend, confidant and Sister Singer Superior. We shared many hours together at her home in Los Angeles, or at her gigs in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and other American cities. The focus these past few days has properly highlighted Billie Holiday's centennial commemoration with reams of print recalling her rise to fame and tragic life. None of us will ever forget her sound or her influence, especially Carmen, her most ardent admirer. She once told me that if Lady Day asked her to jump out the window of a thirty-story building, she'd have flung her life away without regret. In a much less exaggerated form, that was the sort of devotion I developed for Carmen myself over time.
We often spoke on the telephone, usually to chat about the latest plot twists on "All My Children", a favorite soap opera she watched faithfully. (It's common knowledge that Ella Fitzgerald was also addicted to her "stories"). Carmen was so loyal she had a satellite dish installed on the roof of her home in Beverly Hills so she could watch the show in EST, not forced to wait for the three-hour West Coast delayed telecast. I watched it too, but only because she did.
Often, she liked to call from some city on the road to describe the latest less than adequate hotel room accommodations or highly over-rated, sometimes non-existent amenities, snarling the whole time, until eventually we were both howling with laughter. I once bought her a phone jack with the longest cord I could find because one such call began this way: ME: "Hello"? CARMEN: (shouting): "Girl! Can I just tell you about this &*@$-ing hotel where the phone is on the OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM!!! ... nowhere near the bed where it's supposed to be!!!" She'd continue her diatribe, describing numerous other transgressions with unreliable room service or imbecilic chamber maids who knocked in spite of a DND hanging on the door knob. When she called, she never asked if it was an awkward moment, or if I was otherwise occupied. She usually didn't even identify herself. She'd just launch into a flamboyant tirade, but at the end of the call, her mood was predictably less bombastic. She probably gave a better performance that night too because she released all that tension with an eye-popping imitation of Mt. Vesuvius.
It was 1988. I was in New York and can't remember why. I called her hotel to say goodbye before taking the train back to Boston. She said: "You mean you don't want to come to my record date this afternoon?" And that's how I came to bear witness to the studio sessions which completed her ambitious, daring, and subsequently definitive essay of songs never meant to be sung: the music of Thelonious Monk.
In this valuable YouTube video of her Montreal Jazz Festival appearance in 1988, she sings several Monk compositions with her usual flair, at ease with perhaps the most abstract and complex melodies only she would have had the audacity and skill to challenge. It's well worth your time to watch Carmen at play, so to speak, because she is in her element here, a glorious thing to see. She's working with her hand-picked trio: Eric Gunnison piano, Scott Collie bass, Marc Pulice drums. Clifford Jordan's majestic tenor sax is the perfect embellishment. Sit back and enjoy this most distinguished artist, my girl friend Carmen. I'm going to watch it with you, and remember her with never-ending admiration.
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