Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Carmen McRae!

April 8

Singer Carmen McRae–one of the premiere singers in the annals of jazz–is born in New York City in 1920. McRae was known for impeccable vocal control and behind the beat phrasing. She applied bop-influenced ideas to swinging tunes and was a ballad singer of great subtlety, able to flavor each note, sometimes with a touch of acerbity. She also possessed a rare acting gift; critic Ralph Gleason once wrote, “She can make you believe any song she sings.” McRae had this talent in common with Billie Holiday, on whom McRae patterned her approach without ever sounding like Lady Day. Discovered by Irene Wilson Kitchings (first husband of pianist Teddy Wilson), McRae also impressed Benny Carter, with whose orchestra she had her first professional gig, in 1944. She also sang with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1946 to 1947. She was an accomplished pianist and gained a following playing intermission piano at Minton’s Playhouse, in the wake of bebop’s “Eureka” moment. She sang with the Mat Matthews Quintet and recorded on small labels before signing with Decca in 1954. Over the next two decades, as she gradually won more acclaim for her live performances–on which she often accompanied herself on piano–major labels such as Decca (1954 to 1958), Columbia, Atlantic, Blue Note and Concord. While most frequently putting her uniquely ironic spin on standards, she also took part in numerous eclectic projects. These included live and recorded performances with Louis Armstrong of Dave Brubeck’s ambitious musical The Real Ambassadors, cutting an album of live duets with Betty Carter, having Brubeck and George Shearing accompany her, and in the autumn of her career recording brilliant tributes to Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan. Listen to McRae in peak form: a glittering rendition of the title tune from her 1956 LP, Blue Moon, on which Tadd Dameron provided arrangements and orchestral obbligatti that fit her like a satin glove, here:

Trumpeter Tom Harrell records the album Form in 1990, with saxophonist Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman and guitarist John Abercrombie.

Pianist Al Haig records the LP Live in Hollywood, 1952.

Dizzy Gillespie’s big band records Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” which would soon become a jazz standard, in 1957.