Dec. 28-Jan. 3, 1995
Photo by Ebet
THE WOMAN WE
Sass, Class, and Carmen McRae
by James Gavin
"I AM the
oldest person in the world!" growled a 74-year-old Carmen
McRae in 1992, as a makeup woman prepared her for an
on-camera interview in her Beverly Hills home. "The other
day I was watching TV and the pope came on, and they said
he was 69. I thought, shit - even the fucking
is younger than
Respiratory ills had halted the great jazz singer's career
18 months earlier, but only death - which took her on
November 10 of this year - could curb her feistiness. As
she summoned her past for a still unfinished documentary
that I was asked to cowrite, I noticed how much her speech
recalled her singing: salty, smart, aimed straight between
the eyes. McRae had sung romantic songs since 1939, but she
never took love at face value, in her music or her life.
Even tunes as clear-cut as "The Man I Love" or "As Time
Goes By" had a skeptical, probing edge when she sang them.
Among jazz vocalists, she was unique: early all her
improvisations pointed straight to the words.
She did share one important trait with her peers: a life
that had become one long travelogue, from California to
Manhattan to Japan, from nightclub to recording studio. In
1983 she made the Blue Note her New York base, singing
there twice a year throughout the '80s. Seated on a stool
in one of her robelike gowns, she looked like a jazz
priestess: her majestic, high-cheekboned face made more
exotic by a West Indian cast; her short Afro dyed several
shades; big, dark eyes sizing up the whole room in one
Long before her final engagement in May 1991, emphysema had
made her breathing labored. But her musicality and dramatic
power saw her through, not to mention her ability to have
fun with herself. Opening night included "Getting Some Fun
Out of Life," a swinging Billie Holiday trifle that she
loved to sing. In the second chorus she upped her
tough-girl attitude, declaring in a mock-bullying tone:
"When we wanna sing, we sing, and when we wanna dance
I laughed out loud, and she threw me a quick, devilish
smile. McRae wasn't too free with those smiles, and when
she turned one on it could give you a jolt.
As usual, though, ballads ruled the night. She seemed drawn
to songs in which love was full of conflict and doubt: "But
Beautiful," "My Foolish Heart," "Imagination." One phrase
would come out tender and yearning, the next would be
etched in acid, as if her own vulnerability scared her.
When she sang Paul Williams’s "With One More Look at You,"
about a love strong enough to "overcome the anger that I’ve
learned to know," it gave the sense of a battle won.
Hours after the last show of that run, a bronchitis attack
drove her into intensive care. Suddenly, Carmen McRae's
career was over. For the next three and a half years she
lay in her bedroom watching TV, by all reports still
drinking and smoking. A young Haitian woman looked after
the house; a few friends - her manager Larry Clothier, her
traveling companion Shirley Thomas - came by as often as
she'd let them. Trips downstairs, like the one for our
documentary, were rare.
The show's producer, Gene Davis, the crew, and myself
arrived that day to the news that McRae didn't feel too
well and would join us as soon as she could. A half-hour
later, an escalator chair carried her slowly down the
steps. She looked drained of color and sounded weak. But as
the makeup artist went to work, the Carmen we knew
reappeared before our eyes.
And did she talk! Born in 1918, she told Davis, McRae came
up in Harlem "when Harlem was a paradise." She recounted
her early gig as an Atlantic City chorus girl; her
reluctant debut as a pianist-singer in 1948; evenings spent
with Dizzy, Bird, Monk, and especially her idol Billie
Holiday, "in the days when bebop was becoming
she said. "Those people were my friends. We hung out, got
high together." (No hard stuff for her, though.) She
eulogized Lady and Sarah, dissed Nancy Wilson and mel
Tormé, spoke frankly of her marriage to drummer Kenny
Clarke, whom she didn't love.
Although McRae's true sexuality seemed pretty obvious, no
interviewer dared bring it up. Apparently she never came to
terms with it, even going out of her way to assert her
straightness onstage. But if a writer asked about her
notoriously (and sometimes cruelly) barbed tongue, he got a
sample. "That's a lot of bullshit," she told James T. Jones
IV of Down
"Any time you speak your mind, you're tough as nails. I've
never punched anybody in the mouth. I've never pushed
anybody down the stairs or shot anybody. Now, how much can
you do with just words?"
Plenty, if you were Carmen McRae. Her recordings prove it.
"Autumn Nocturne," a ballad she cut in 1953 for the
Stardust label, captures a young, creamy-voiced McRae at
that time an intermission pianist in a strip joint. Even
then she had immaculate diction and control, elegant
phrasing, and a deep instinct for drama—qualities she
explored in a series of albums for Decca and Kapp.
mid ‘60s, when she made her outstanding orchestral albums
for Mainstream, Haven’t We Met
None (anthologized on the Sony
her familiar reediness had set in, bringing with it endless
color and nuance. Who else could make a swingfest out of
"Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" while giving every phrase
a bitingly sardonic tinge? For her, "Blame It on My Youth"
was no sob story but an unsparing self-examination, shared
without bitterness. Her profound musicianship, rooted at
the piano, gave her work much of its authority. She heard
all the possibilities in a chord, then chose the one that
best enhanced the story.
If something were bugging her that day, you'd hear what
writer Joel E. Siegel called "a seasoned pro coasting along
on semi-automatic pilot." But for all the unevenness of her
later records, most of the available titles are worth
owning. Try Alive!,
a Sony reissue of
two 1965 Village Gate performances, and The Great
a 1971 live date on Atlantic, as well as two Decca and Kapp
Stay and Sings Great American
Songwriters. Her last two albums, issued
in the ‘90s, are less satisfying: Carmen Sings
which weds great music to inane lyrics; and
to You, a strangely uninspired salute
to her friend and early influence.
At the end of that November day in Beverly Hills, the
biggest question remained: could she still do it? Before
turning off the camera, Gene Davis asked her for a song. "I
don't even know if I can sing anymore," she said. But
without further prodding she sat at the piano and gave us
"Ain't Misbehavin'." Despite some rustiness, the voice was
unmistakable Carmen McRae, almost as gutsy and acerbic as
ever, and it still gave me goosebumps. At the end we
cheered, telling her how good she sounded. "Aw, I sound
like shit," she muttered, turning her face away.
A few minutes later I kissed her goodbye. When I told her
how much it meant to me to be part of this documentary, she
answered: "Well, I'm glad you decided to do it before I'm
We tried, Carmen. Singer Carol Sloane, her longtime buddy
is planning another loving tribute: The Songs Carmen
her next Concord CD. McRae’s own records will always be
there as a reminder not to fall in love too easily. She
never claimed that doing so resulted in any less pain, but
she did make a convincing argument that the hard truth is
the only truth to live by.