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Carmen McRae: "We were happy in the days of Fifty-Second Street"
"Notes and Tones Ė Musician to Musician Interviews" - Interviews by Art Taylor. Da Capo Press / New York (expanded edition 1993
Art Taylor interviewed Carmen in Cologne, Germany, October 30, 1970

When did you realize you wanted to be a singer?

I imagine my interest in music must have started when I was a baby. My father was a very musical man. Not a performer, but someone who loved good music. I donít remember this, but Iím told that as a child, I used to know all the popular tunes of the day, like most children do today because of listening to music thatís being played constantly on radio and television. I found out later on that there were two or three relatives of mine who were musically inclined. I mean musically inclined to the point of having good sounding voices. They could have been singers if they had wanted to be, but I guess they never did. So maybe thatís where whatever musical talent I have came from.

Iím the only one in my family thatís in this business. I have been fortunate: they all wished me well and they might have wished me their talent. Their talent and maybe a bit of my own have helped me get where I am today. I had to become one of two things in life: someone who was musically inclined and good enough to be able to perform or else a good audience of music. I just happen to be a performer.
When I was still in my teens, I met a woman who became my idol. She was my idol then and continued to be my idol; though she is dead now, she is still my idol. Thatís Billie Holiday. I met Lady when I was very young, and she was one of the most impressive women I have ever met in my life. She really scared me as far as singing was concerned. She seemed so utterly perfect to me that I felt anything after her would be anticlimactic. Consequently, I was afraid of becoming what I had hoped to become at an earlier stage in my life. That was a very important phase to me. After that I had some minor experiences with Benny Carterís band, Mercer Ellingtonís and Count Basieís band, just short stints which really couldnít influence me much because I was too young. What helped me was Billie Holiday, which happened at a very early stage in my life.

The next thing was going to Chicago [sings]: "Sorry that I canít take youÖ" Iím getting carried away! Anyway, I went to Chicago and liked the city. In order to stay I had to make a living. A friend of mine who was an ex-chorus girl knew I could play and sing, which I would do just for friends, not professionally. She said, "Why donít you take a job playing and singing?" I said to her, "Lulu, that sounds great, but I donít know if Iím capable." She said, "I know someone who wants a girl singer and piano player. If you go and you donít make it at least you tried." I said, "Itís hard for a woman like myself, who is an Aries, to take a defeat. I would rather hear nothing than hear no." She convinced me, I went, and the man there was beautiful to me. I will never forget him. He gave me a job for two weeks, with a two-week option to play the piano and sing. He advanced me money to join the union. I stayed two weeks, and he picked up the option.

I realized that my piano playing was very limited, because I had never intended to become a real pianist except just to play for myself or to rehearse a tune. It became essential to play better. I stayed at that job for seventeen weeks. During that time I hired a piano, and as my repertoire was very shallow, I rehearsed every day until my repertoire grew bigger. I stayed in Chicago and worked there for three and a half years, which was the greatest experience I could ever have had. I donít care that it happened in Chicago. I donít care where it happened, as long as it happened. I found out that I could make a living playing and singing. My idols were great pianists like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, so I could not be fooled by my own piano playing at all. My piano playing was just a means to get where I wanted to get as a singer.

How important do you think it is for a singer to know something about the piano?

Going by my experience, it is one of the most important things. I donít believe I would have whatever reputation I have today if I had not had any knowledge of the piano. That experience of studying music is what put me where I am today. Without it I would perhaps not even be singing, or of I had become a singer, it might not be as impressive as whatever it is I do now. I have said this for years and I still think it is extremely important. It is important if you want to be a lasting artist. Any artist who really knows what he or she is doing musically will last. I think itís the non-professional professionals who fade out. They earn a lot of money in a minute, yet donít make it somehow. After they're gone, people donít even remember who they were. Thatís why itís very important to know your craft.

When you are onstage, are you singing for yourself, for the musicians, or for the audience?

Iím glad you asked me that. Thatís one of the most important things in the world. I can answer this question better than a lot of other questions. I have to sing for myself. Letís look at this thing in the proper light. I am involved because I am the one doing what I am doing. Right? I only do what I do because I want to please the people who have taken the time to come and hear me. I have to do it for somebody; because thatís the only way I can find out whether I was right or wrong to feel good about whatever Iíve been doing. Consequently I sing for the musicians, too, because I need them playing competently behind me, doing what I want them to do for the people sitting there. So it really is a combination of doing it for everyone. If the musicians are good- and they have to be for me to feel good- Iím going to do my best for the audience; so itís really a combination of musicians, myself and audience.

I want the musicians to like it too, Ďcause if they donít like it theyíre not going to be able to play for me, even if they are competent. If they donít like what Iím doing and if theyíre only playing for the sake of the bread, itís no good. Theyíve got to dig me. I dig them because Iím hiring them. Right?

Of course my main way of earning a living is pleasing my audience, so that I can pay the cats and get paid, too, so I can go home happy. Actually itís a combination of pleasing everybody. If you can start out on stage pleasing each other, ninety-nine percent of the time you please the audience too. Audiences know who you are, they know what you do and they have come to hear you in person. You have those three things going for you before you open your mouth. You only have to do your thing, Ďcause thatís what they came for. If you do it well and youíre not inebriated or under the influence of anything, youíll be sincere, which is all you need. Itís such a beautiful business weíre in, A.T. I guess all the arts are beautiful, but I think we have a better chance of feeling good about ourselves, and we have more incentive to go on, because we get confidence from the people who come to listen to us. The music business is one of the finest businesses in the world. You make contact with people immediately, and they tell you what they like and what they donít like and that gives you a sense of what youíre doing. You might want to go in one direction and they say no, they like the other way, so you go in the other direction. Thatís what youíre really there for, to entertain. If I had to sing for myself, I would never hear a note, because Iím not here for that.

Do you consider yourself a jazz singer?

Thatís a question I have been asked many times. I am jazz oriented; if it werenít for jazz I wouldnít be anywhere. I only want to be categorized as a good or a bad singer. I originally started as a so-called jazz singer. I was dubbed that somewhere along the line, and I never really thought about it. I really didnít start out to be a jazz singer; I just started out to sing. But it was awfully hard, as it is for any musician, to play and not to improvise in some sort of way on the melody. If doing that made me a jazz singer, then yes, thatís what I am. I have also done many tunes that couldnít possibly be called jazz tunes and made many single records that were not jazz.

Either people like what I do or they donít. They can say: "She has a good voice, but I wish she wouldnít doÖ" I donít care, but they must not categorize me. I know what people expect when you sing a song, and if you scat, thatís jazz; thatís understandable. I hear people who are not categorized as jazz singers, such as Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and many others who all making exorbitant amounts of money. I havenít heard them sing one song the way it was written yet. If they can deviate from the melody, which is categorized as jazz, where does it begin and where does it end? What makes one person a jazz singer and another one not a jazz singer? Is it a question of how much improvising they do? I donít understand it.

Today we have contemporary music, a lot of which is fantastic. A lot of it is also garbage. Iím very happy about contemporary developments in music, because to keep doing all the rest of my life eight bars and a channel and eight bars, and 4/4-time and3/4 time would have driven me crazy. Iím happy we have 7/8 time and 5/4 time; Iím happy weíre saying something different than moon June and love dove. I love what Iím doing now. I do Beatles tunes. Incidentally, I think they are excellent songwriters. I donít think they are so great singing or doing their thing, but their songs are fantastic. If they want to call them jazz, I donít mind just as long as they call me to do it.

What do you plan for yourself for the future?

I would like to do some acting. I would like to try something else that is a part of what I do, only without music. I wouldnít particularly want it to be a musical- not that I would turn a musical down- but I would prefer something dramatic or in the comedy field. I donít know if I can do it, but I sure would like to try.

Singing is a natural road to acting, yet none of our great singers, including yourself, has gotten into acting. You should try.

A lot of people have told me the same thing. First I would like to convince myself that maybe I do have a knack for it, but Iíll never know unless somebody comes along and offers me an opportunity.

Do you listen to music when you are at home?

Yes, I do. I listen mostly to instrumental music. Being a lover of the piano, Oscar Peterson happens to be my favorite all-around pianist. There are many other pianists I love, but I wonít go into it because there are too many of them. Oscar is my favorite because he encompasses everything. There are pianists I like because of one thing and pianists I like because of another. But overall I like Oscar best.

Since we are talking about pianists, what is it you look for in a piano accompanist?

Thatís a hard question. Accompanying someone cannot be explained by a singer to a pianist. He either knows what to do or he doesnít. An accompanist and a guy who can play the piano are two different things. You have to find someone who is completely sympathetic to the soloist as a singer and not to the soloist as an instrumentalist. Itís a completely different thing. Even if a guy can play his buns off, it does not necessarily mean he can accompany a singer. There are some guys who can accompany a singer and who canít play worth a damn as far as soloing is concerned. Thatís the difference, and itís a vast difference. A guy must really love to do it. He cannot do it because he has nothing else to do.

Getting back to the music you like, what else do you listen to?

Of course, I listen to John Birks Gillespie, and to the Kenny Clark Ė Francy Boland band; I listen to Miles, to Freddy Hubbard, to Cannonball Adderly, and to Blood, Sweat and Tears. These are my favorite groups Iím mentioning to you, and I know Iím going to leave some out. I love music only when I can communicate with it. If I canít communicate with it, it leaves me cold.

You asked me about avant-garde music. Well, thatís what the avant-garde does to me; Iím sorry. If there are six people in a group and all six are playing something different there is no way for me to know who to concentrate on or whatís going on. If I go to a club to hear somebody, Iím going there primarily because I believe that they are going to play the kind of music that brought me in there in the first place. I believe if itís more than one person. There has to be some kind of discipline. If youíre playing by yourself, right on, anything you want. But when youíve got three, four or five people you start off with a mode of some kind or a set pattern of chords for all of you to play for the first chorus; then after the first chorus, what happens? Where do they go? Why do they all have to go in opposite directions? When I find out how I can get some musical satisfaction out of it, then I might like it.

Do you use the same technique if youíre recording, doing a radio show, at a club or at a concert?

You have to change according to where you are. If youíre doing a radio show and thereís nobody there but you and musicians and technicians, thatís one thing. If youíre doing a broadcast or a TV show in front of an audience, thatís another thing. Doing a concert with nothing there other than the people youíre entertaining is still another thing. If youíre cutting a record in a studio alone with just the musicians, thatís another thing again.

First of all, TV I can do without. I never feel too comfortable on TV, mainly because I canít see all those twenty or thirty million people that Iím supposed to be singing to. Consequently itís like singing to the audience in the studio. Right? Which doesnít make up one iota of the people youíre being seen by and who are the real judges of the show; that leaves me cold. I donít mind because eventually I can sit down at the panel and talk, and I hope I can make up whatever I lacked while I was singing with some intelligence.

I really prefer to sing a concert for people who have paid admission to hear me. I think I do my best in that atmosphere. I never do my best recording, because I never know the song until I record it and start doing it, and six months later itís right. Somebody says to you two weeks from now or four weeks from now, weíre going to do a record; here are twelve songs. You learn them and you learn them, and you really learn them. But you donít know them until later.

Youíve never tried to do the numbers long before, say, in clubs?

Iíve never had the opportunity, unless it happened to be a song I did with my trio and that I decided to put in an album with a big band. Then I know the song and I can do my thing. But not the songs that we sit down and pick out two weeks before the session. Some of them are utterly unfamiliar. Iíve never heard them before. Some of them I might know, but I have never sung before. It isnít really done right unless I really dig the song and take out the rhythm-section parts after the session. Then weíll start doing it in clubs, and by the time the record comes out, Iím doing it completely different.

Carmen, I think we have a beautiful interview.

Weíve been talking for days, A.T.

Is there anything you want to add?

I think this is a fantastic idea of yours. I love to voice opinions and to be among such people as Iím going to be involved with in this documentary that youíre putting down in book form. Iím very flattered that you chose to interview me. I just hope it will be worthy of all the other people that youíve interviewed and that Iíll have contributed something to somebody.

Arthur Taylor is a drummer who played with many jazz greats. He recorded interviews with prominent jazz musicians between 1968 and 1972 and first published them under the title Notes and Tones in Europe in 1977. As a black musician, he delved into issues beyond those of music.