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When I First Met Carmen McRae
By Carol Sloane

It was in the early 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 early 1950's because a disc jockey in my home town of Providence 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 cheerful sounds of laughter - intimacies exchanged in the language of the hip - and the seductive clink of glasses filled with beverages guaranteed to intoxicate.
    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 McRaeRay 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 had tell her how much her singing meant to me, no matter the risk.
    Awkwardly, 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 of 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.
    Years later, by which time we had become very close 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 friendship sooner. This precious drop of gold has stayed in my heart, along with so many other memories of a generous, funny, passionate woman.
    I live with a constant sense of regret that we are no longer able to see or talk or laugh together. On my new radio show, I often play Carmen's recordings, hoping some other young singer may one day comprehend her musical wisdom, and come to appreciate that salty edge which distinguished Carmen from all others. That sound changed the course of my life forever so many years ago.


Carol Sloane
began her distinguished career as a teen-ager. She’s recorded numerous albums and CDs; subbed for Annie Ross in the famed Lambert, Hendricks and Ross trio; and performed at prestigious venues, such as the Village Vanguard. In 1995. she recorded The Songs Carmen Sang for Concord Jazz.

 








 
 
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