See and hear Carmen
NY Times Obit
Carmen McRae in the Rain
By Hammond Guthrie
(San Francisco - Winter 1967)
Back in the City, I was just ahead of an impending storm front, sidewalk down on the lower end of Polk Street, making for the warmth of our third floor walk-up, when a torn scrap of paper scotch taped inside the window of a dingy little bar caught my attention. Curious, I walked over to read the note. The joint was completely dark inside and pad-locked tight, but the childish pencil scrawl read: "10 p.m.- Carmen McRae." I laughed as rain began to fall, thinking how improbable a performance that would be, and made for home. But I couldn’t get Carmen’s voice out of my head.
The City was then in its psychodramic era du Trips Festival, and though I enjoyed the ballrooms and their condiments as much as the next person, I took a more personal interest in the sets happening in clubs such as the Jazz Workshop in North Beach and the Both/And in the Fillmore District. Free Jazz was beginning to come around, and my focus at the time was on musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Rosco Michell, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans and John Coltrane.
In order to get up with this kind of music I had spent a considerable amount of time listening to the work of earlier players - Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and to the incomparable big band sound of the Benny Carter, Charlie Barnett, and Count Basie Orchestras. It was during this background education that I first heard the uniquely vibrant voice of Carmen McRae, the younger contemporary and eventual confidant to the great Billie Holiday, who recorded one of Carmen’s earliest compositions, "Dream of Life." Hence my reservation that the formidable singer would be performing in a nasty little dive on Polk Street at 10 p.m. on a wet Wednesday night.
As the evening progressed throughout one of the worst storms in memory, I kept thinking about Carmen McRae, played Billie Holiday albums and, without any affirmative results, called a couple of jazz clubs in inquiry. At nine o’clock I gave in, still doubting that the seedy little tavern would even be open for business, put on a sport coat under ten pounds of rain gear and made my way back to Polk Street.
To my surprise, the missive had been removed and in its place a small neon blinked "OPEN" and after depositing my slicker at the door, I let my eyes adjust to the bar’s campy interior. I felt soggy and a little out of place when the overtly gay bartender swooned by my table for my drink order. I just couldn’t bring myself to ask him if there was a cover charge - the unremarkable bar didn’t have a stage or a piano. I brightened a bit when four or five other patrons, including a black couple, filled up the remaining tables.
Just before ten o’clock, as I sat nursing my whiskey and doubt, the flamboyant bartender rolled out an old upright from behind a heavy curtain and returned to his perch at the bar. What little light there was dimmed, and without prelude beyond saying, "Good evening, everybody," Carmen McRae herself sat down at the keyboard. She sang one glorious standard after another for a good forty-five minutes to a completely silent (if not stunned) audience of a dozen or so very lucky people.
During a casual break Ms. McRae commented that twenty years before, the bar had been a great after-hours hangout for jazz players in transit. She and the owner had remained friends, and whenever she stopped in the City, she said she liked "to fall in, relatively unannounced, and sing for a while." Carmen went on for another intimate thirty minutes, mesmerizing the tiny house with her classic interpretations of Billie Holiday songs, including the rarely performed "Don’t Explain." Following our applause, she quite unexpectedly closed her impromptu set with an amazing piano skat take on Charlie Parker’s composition, "Cherokee."
Carmen thanked us for listening (!) and joined some friends at one of the tables. The bartender rolled the piano back behind the curtain and, except for her anomalous presence, the bar returned to its unremarkable condition. Following a night-cap I gathered up my rain gear and repaired to the nearby Cedar Alley coffee house for a double espresso to aide me home.
When I ventured out again, the storm was at its most furious, and I stopped to catch my breath under an awning next door to the bar where Carmen had performed.
Just then, a door opened behind me, and out walked Carmen McRae! She stood there a moment taking in the torrential downpour, and I addressed her with as much courage and decorum as I could muster. "Excuse me, Ms. McRae, I was here earlier this evening and thoroughly enjoyed your performance, but, really, you shouldn’t be out here by yourself on a night like this!" I then innocently offered to escort her to wherever she was going. She smiled a smile I will never forget, and as her cab pulled to the curb, she said to me with all sincerity: "Young man, you are a gentleman - if I was just a few years younger and didn’t already have plans, I would take you up on that offer."
As she got into the back seat, she paused for just a moment - her indelible eyes took me inside so tenderly, as she waved me good-by from the rear window. Truly flattered, I stood there forever, actively blushing in a precipitant wind as the image of Carmen McRae’s unlikely presence in my life disappeared in the rain.
This vignette is taken from Hammond's recently completed book of memoirs: AsEverWas (A Self-Descriptive Biopathy) which covers his life and times in San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, Paris and North Africa during the years (1968-1976).
The author currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on a follow-up volume of vignettes titled Biopathic Tendencies (1976-1992).
Copyright 2001 Hammond Guthrie