Carmen McRae - Biography



By Nick Castro

 

Carmen McRae was one of the most famous jazz singers, who ranked among her contemporaries like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. McRae was born in Harlem in New York City in 1920. She was the first in her family born in the United States. Her parents were from Jamaica. When McRae was still young she began her studies in classical piano, though she would often spend her free time listening to popular songs on the radio and on her parents gramophone. She would often imitate and learn the songs by ear. She attended Julia Richman High School, which was an all girls school, and later studies to be a secretary but the world of jazz was luring her.

 

Soon McRae met Irene Kitchings, who was the wife jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. Kitchings would introduce McRae to many of jazz's New York luminaries including McRae's idol, Billie Holiday. McRae offered Holiday one of her original compositions, called "Dream of Life", and with some gentle prodding from Wilson and Kitchings, Holiday agreed to record it, which she did in January of 1939. It was released on both the Vocalian and Brunswick labels. McRae fell in love with the jazz world and was soon spending time in many of the regular haunts. Holiday and Kitchings were tremendously influential and supportive of her in the jazz scene and soon McRae was working as a chorus girl and playing piano during intermissions at the Minton's Playhouse and Hotel Braddock Grill. She became friendly with people like Oscar Pettiford, Nat King Cole, Thelonius Monk, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington and especially Sarah Vaughan, who she would stay friends with for life, and drummer Kenny Clarke, who she would become romantically involved with. Clarke was one of the creators of the bebop sound and arguably the most important young drummer in New York at the time and McRae was a talented and beautiful young piano playing singer and dancer. It was at this time that she got her debut jobs working firstly for the Benny Carter Big Band and then with Count Basie's orchestra. It was the stint she did with Basie that first established her as a rising star in the eyes of New York.

 

In 1943 Clarke got drafted and McRae followed him, shortly after, to marry and live with him. Not long after McRae decided she could not stand the southern racism and segregation, she left to head back for New York. Clarke agreed and went AWOL for a few months to return to New York himself. They stayed with McRae's family but Clarke spent most of time at late night sessions and the two barely saw one another. McRae ended up in Washington DC for a while helping with the war effort but once again grew weary and returned to New York to resume her jazz career.

 

Upon her return to New York, McRae got a job with Mercer Ellington, the trumpet playing son of Duke Ellington. it was with Mercer that McRae would make her recording debut on the song "Pass Me By", written by Mercer himself. Webster also made an appearance on that session, playing baritone saxophone. Her next recordings would not be until two years later when she was accompanied by Charlie Parker, Duke Jordan, Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Miles Davis. These recordings would remain unreleased though for many years.

 

It was in 1948 that McRae would move to Chicago with her new husband, comedian George Kirby. She began to work local clubs and make a name for herself there, as she had back in New York. She played a lot of piano there and she credits her time spent with hardening her for a career in the tough jazz business. She returned to New York, after having already left Kirby, where she had lost her steam and she went back to work in an office and got a moonlighting job at a club in Brooklyn. It was at Minton's in New York where she would be encouraged to start singing again, rather than playing the piano. At first she was reluctant to do so but ultimately she succumbed to the pressure. it was the right move. She soon got recording contracts with labels like Stardust and Bethleham. She recorded the albums A Foggy Day (1953 - Stardust) and Carmen McRae (1955 - Bethleham). She was joined by musicians Herbie Mann on flute and tenor saxophone, Mundell Lowe on guitar, Kenny Clarke on drums, who stayed friendly with McRae after their divorce, and Wendell Marshall on bass.

 

In 1955 McRae went to Decca, which was a big step up in her career, and it was there that she released the album Torchy (1955 - Decca). She had also recorded an album with Sammy Davis Jr. in 1955 but it would not be released for two years. McRae began to be offered prestigious gigs at larger halls and venues. All of this came just in time, as McRae has recalled that she was feeling down about her career and was ready to quit the business altogether, just prior to her initial large successes. Soon, after her entry to stardom, she assumed a tough leadership role in all future endeavors. She became famous for her, sometimes rude, style of handling musicians and her music. She had the utmost respect for jazz and every intention to maintain her musical integrity at any cost.

 

By the early 60's McRae would be touring Europe and she had a regular band. She recorded a live album in England called In London (1961 - Ember). Upon her return she recorded an album for Columbia Records called Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics (1961 - Columbia). She also had married her bass player Ike Issacs, but they soon divorced. Mcrae returned to New York where she continued to have great success. In the late 60's she moved to California with her new husband, French guitarist Francois Vaz. She began to have many personnel changes in her staff and band in the 70's but the quality of her work never suffered. She died in 1994, in her Hollywood Hills home, after having received accolades and awards from such institutions as the N.A.A.C.P. and the national Endowment for the Arts.

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