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CARMEN MCRAE by Ralph J. Gleason
From Celebrating the Duke, and Louis, Bessie, Bird, Carmen, Miles, Dizzy and Other Heroes (Da Capo Press, New York. 1995)

She stood there on the stage, a vision, Georgia Rose in the flesh, the burning eyes reaching right out across the rows of seats, the spotlight shining on her cheekbones, her head thrust back a little as she sang "When Sunny Gets Blue."
   There were over eight thousand people in that packed, open-air arena at the Monterey Jazz Festival. They froze, or I’d better say they melted, for the emotion she put into that song was the direct enemy of ice. They swayed, when she moved her hand, as though each person in that audience was connected by some invisible silken thread to her hand and to her heart as well as through the sound of that magic voice.
   And when she finished there was a moment of total, absolute silence in which no one even moved. And then they applauded.
   Maybe it was "When Sunny Gets Blue" again; if not, it was another of her special sad songs. I no longer remember the song, only the effect. It was a big club and it was all but empty. Nobody there to hear the magic. Just the band and the bartender and over in the corner the waitress, almost weeping. "How can she know so much?" she said to me when it was over and Carmen had opened up her heart to that most sacred audience of one.

  
     T
he contrasts are delightful. On the afternoon of that Monterey nighttime triumph, Carmen sat around the backstage area, hair in curlers, wearing raunchy, faded blue jeans, carrying on like one of the funkiest musicians in jazz. But out on that stage she was The Grand Lady, the Queen, possessed of the power with her voice to move people as no one else in her time.
Another night in a San Francisco club, some member of the audience interrupted her, shattering the mood like a crumbling icicle. Carmen stopped short, leaned into the microphone, and said with that edge her voice assumes when she gets salty, "Either you’re coming up here or I’m goin’ down there!" She glared for a moment at the cringing customer, and then resumed her song. But I mean she not only started singing it, but she stitched back the mood, put it all together again in an instant as if the interruption had never happened.
   That’s magic. You can call it showmanship, you can call it stage presence, you can call it anything you want to call it, but I know it’s magic, so don’t tell me anything else. You see, I’d actually quarrel with the title of this collection of songs. To me, it’s not The Art of Carmen McRae, but the Magic of Carmen McRae.

  
Very, very few singers in any genre are able to go out there on that lonely stage, take off all the shells of pretense and convention, and stand there emotionally naked.
   
   
Listen to her do this to Jim Webb’s "Didn’t We?" with no accompaniment save Alexander Gafa’s sympathetic guitar. It is an incredible performance—simple, unadorned, not stark but revealed and vulnerable. And warm. Listen to it again, in a different mode, but with the same openness and vulnerability when she sings "Satin Doll" with only Chuck Domanico’s bass behind her for the first half of the song.
   
   She can get a quality of intimacy into a public performance that’s almost embarrassing, it’s so real.

      
     Let me tell you about another thing she can do. I remember a cold April night in the Greek Theater at the University of California in Berkeley. A huge amphitheater, close to sixteen thousand people packed there, huddled on concrete benches and jammed on the grass behind the top row. It was another jazz festival, the U. C. Jazz Festival, and while it had a solid house of jazz fans, it also had thousands of college students there for the novelty of the occasion rather than for the specific artists.
   Carmen sang a couple of songs. Did well with them and then began Bob Lind's lovely "Elusive Butterfly." This was the students’ language. They went wild, interrupting her with applause just for singing the song, and then like their elders at countless Carmen McRae appearances, getting hit with that electric shock she can produce, and going silently into themselves and her until the end when they literally screamed for more.
   Songs, you see, have words and they have music and then there is the performance which ought to be, but seldom is, greater than the sum of the parts. With Carmen, you get it all. For the melody of the song itself, you get a jazz musician interpolating, bringing variations of phrasing, melodic line and rhythm and sometimes adding completely spontaneous improvisations. It’s the human voice, but Carmen makes it sound sometimes like cello, sometimes like a saxophone, sometimes like a violin and sometimes, for brief little passages – and this is exquisitely hard to do – like a trumpet.
   Then you get the words.


    Carmen McRae sings the lyrics of a song like Sir Laurence Olivier delivering a Shakespearean speech.


    
Sh
e gives lessons in elocution. There are songs – and the first one on this collection, "I Only Have Eyes for You," is one – which take on multiple additional meanings by the manner in which Carmen McRae delivers the lines. You can hear a song for years – I’ve been through this and believe me, I know – and then hear Carmen sing it and all of a sudden the lyrics became a story, they literally come to life.
   That’s part of Carmen, the actress. And her performance of every song she sings, sad or happy, love song or dirge, saucy comment or heavy emotional binge, is a playlet, a short one-woman exercise in dramatic art.


    She lives these songs when she is singing them and then she brings them live and direct to you.
 

   In all my life I have found only four persons who could do that out of all the great singers I’ve heard. One was Billie Holiday, and she’s dead, and only Carmen has a moral right to sing her songs. I heard Judy Garland do "God Bless the Child" once and was almost moved to violence. Edith Piaf could do it, and oddly the language was no barrier. You knew what she was saying even if you could not understand literally a word of French. The ‘broken sparrow’ is dead now, too. And there was another, also no longer with us. Her name was La Nina de Los Peines, "The Lady of the Combs," and she was a flamenco singer, perhaps the greatest singer of that high voltage music who ever lived. She could do it, too, and, again, the language barrier was no barrier at all. She spoke, as Carmen speaks, in pure international emotion.
Were this a society as open and as free as it pretends it is, Carmen McRae would be a national treasure as Edith Piaf was and as La Nina de los Peines was. But Carmen comes from the world of jazz, as pure a musician as Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk, and this country has still to mature to a point where it can take jazz seriously.


Carmen and trio performing on Ral;ph Gleason''s television show

 Some years ago I did a television show with Carmen McRae, half an hour long. Just Carmen and her trio. She sat on a stool in the middle of the set and talked and sang and mesmerized the technicians just as, when the show was aired, she mesmerized the audiences. It was a remarkable demonstration of improvisation. We didn’t know what she planned to sing. Television is ordinarily not done that way. They have rehearsals and sound checks and they mark off camera angles and go through a whole ritual. Carmen just came in, got the musicians in place, and sang. Just like that. It was so good I was scared to death something would spoil it. As a television program basically concerned with music, it has great humor, because Carmen is a woman with a salty tongue and the brassy gifts of a second story man. She is afraid of nothing on this earth, man, beast or inanimate object. After those audiences in nightclubs and concerts all those years, a television studio was just another stage. We did the show right through from top to bottom with no stops, no retakes. Just straight. It should be shown to every performer on television as a model of how to do it. I really had very little at all to do with it. I just walked on and asked a couple of questions. Carmen was in charge, and Carmen wove the magic web for all of us.
   

    You see, she truly has the magic touch for songs. She picks the right ones. The she gets inside them, puts them on like costumes. They become Carmen and she becomes the song.


    But since each song is a different role, a different personality, a different story
,
it becomes necessary, for a successful program of these performances, to understand a deep and, again, a magical thing about songs. They must be done in the proper order so that, just like the lyric and the melody and the performance add up to more than the sum of their parts, the show, whether it be a half hour or longer, ends up being more than the sum of its parts no matter how powerful each of those parts may be.
    And Carmen can do this. She can take a dozen numbers and knit them together into a whole thing. You can back away and realize that there are individual songs and they are naturally different. But when Carmen sings them, she catches you in her web and brings you along with her into a spell so powerful that while it lasts – and it lasts at her discretion – you just take them all for part of the whole and never think of them as individual songs at all. Even though, when all is over, you realize they were each the product of different writers’ inspirations at different times. But in Carmen’s hands they become one, because she has lent her magic to them.
    I could go down the list of songs in this collection and say things about each of them, how Oliver Nelson gets a marvelous bebop feeling of the 50s into the introduction of "Day By Day," how Anthony Newley’s "There’s No such Thing As Love" comes alive for the first time with Carmen singing it, how Al Kopper’s Blood, Sweat & Tears ballad "I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know" is utterly transformed, how Tommy Wolf’s "I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco" becomes a special kind of tribute, how Buffy Sainte-Marie’s "Until It’s time for You To Go" takes on such an added dimension when Carmen sings it that it is hardly the familiar song at all.
    But I don’t want to do that. If you are already familiar with Carmen McRae you know it anyway, and if you are not, all I want to do is to move you to listen. Actually, just to move you to listen to any part of the collection because The Art of Carmen McRae will get to you once you open your ears and your heart even a little bit.
    There ‘s one more thing. Carmen occupies a place in the hearts of jazz musicians that is a very special place, and its special quality means no criticism of the other great singers of her time but only that Carmen is very, very special. If Ella Fitzgerald will forgive me, I’d like to quote MiIes Davis on the subject because it sums up the way they feel, the way we all feel. Miles was looking up at a billboard in San Francisco one night which announced Ella was playing at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room and it called her "The Queen of Jazz." Miles grunted and then growled, "If Ella Fitzgerald is the Queen of jazz, what the fuck is Carmen?"
   What indeed?



Ralph J. Gleason
was a staunch champion of Carmen McRae and an important figure in the jazz world. He was the founder and editor (1939-41) of Jazz Information, one of the first jazz periodicals in the USA. From 1948-61 he was associated with Down Beat and from 1950 to his death in 1975 with the San Francisco Chronicle as a jazz and popular music critic. He wrote a syndicated weekly column on jazz (1957-70) and contributed to many periodicals. He was a founder of Rolling Stone (1967), co-founded (with Jimmy Lyons) the Monterey Jazz Festival (1958), He hosted a jazz radio program in San Francisco in the 1960s and a television series, Jazx,z Casual for National Educational Television. In 1970 he became a vice president of Fantasy Records.
(Excerpted from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1996,)











 
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