We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In 1978, I went to vocalist Carmen McRae’s Watergate Hotel suite to interview her for Radio Free Jazz, the precursor of Jazz Times. As I was setting up my tape recorder, she rolled a joint and offered to share it with me. I expressed surprise that she would so openly smoke grass in front of a reporter. She replied that she had been enjoying pot every day since she was 16 and grew her own stash in a garden behind her home in the L.A. hills. “If they want to put me in jail for smoking reefer, they can go right ahead,” she asserted. “I’ll find some there, too.” She went on to grant me a long, detailed account of her life and career, filled with revealing personal anecdotes and candid observations about the music business.
Little of McRae’s vibrant personality comes across in hearse-chasing scribbler Leslie Gourse’s subliterate, error-riddled Carmen McRae: Miss Jazz. In many ways, McRae is a biographer’s dream subject. She was an extraordinarily inventive and intelligent singer and an eccentric, more-than-competent pianist. Of the female vocalists to emerge in the last half-century, she’s arguably the only jazz singer whose legacy rivals those left by Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. Offstage, McRae was a fascinatingly complex woman, by turns angry and affectionate, selfish and generous, bullying and vulnerable.
Born in Harlem in 1920 (though the year remains the subject of some dispute), McRae began classical piano studies when she was 8 years old. As a high school senior, she was befriended by composer Irene Kitchings Wilson, the estranged wife of jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. Irene Wilson introduced her to Holiday, McRae’s idol and lifelong inspiration. The following year, Holiday recorded “Dream of Life,” one of McRae’s rare attempts at songwriting.
In her 20s, McRae witnessed the emergence of bebop in Harlem clubs. Thelonious Monk’s angular, percussive piano playing influenced her own keyboard style. In 1943, she married Kenny Clarke, the seminal drummer of the bop era. For the next decade, she struggled, with little success, to forge her own musical career. Apart from brief stints with the Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Mercer Ellington bands, she made ends meet by taking secretarial jobs and dancing in chorus lines. By the early ’50s, following the breakup of her marriage to Clarke and a failed relationship with comedian-impressionist George Kirby, she feared that she would never progress beyond gigs as an intermission pianist and occasional vocalist in obscure nightclubs.
But musicians championed McRae’s singing, even when she had lost faith in herself. Her breakthrough came in 1955, when Decca signed her to a recording contract. Her first Decca album, By Special Request, made an immediate impact and placed her at the top of jazz critics’ polls. For more than three decades, she recorded extensively, becoming a headline attraction at international jazz festivals and clubs. Hospitalized in New York following a near-fatal 1991 emphysema attack, she retired to her home in Los Angeleswhere she died, following a stroke, in 1994.
Over the years, McRae’s crisp, reedy voice darkened as her expressiveness increased. Although some of this change can be attributed to reckless livingshe loved to party and, despite doctor’s orders, was an unrepentant smoker until her deathshe became less interested in sounding pretty and more concerned, like Holiday, with conveying emotion. She drew on a life of fierce independence and turbulent relationships to interpret love songs with a distinctive combination of tenderness and disenchantment. Her infallible rhythmic sense energized up-tempo songs and, when the mood struck her, she could scat with the disciplined facility of a jazz instrumentalist.
Apart from a turgid page devoted to McRae’s manipulation of space and silence in her singing, Gourse exhibits little interest in, or understanding of, her subject’s art. Readers curious about McRae’s vocal technique, diction, and criteria for selecting material are out of luck, as are collectors seeking accurate information about her recordings. Gourse’s text and her book’s two cumbersome appendixes”A Selected Discography” and “A Selected Sessionography”abound with muddles and mistakes. Several incoherent, inconclusive pages are devoted to questioning whether McRae made her first solo records for Venus, Stardust, or Bethlehem. Gourse lists McRae as recording Invitation for the Official label in 1959, but that album, a collection of the singer’s previously unreissued ’50s Decca singles, was compiled and released by Official, a Danish label, in the late ’80s. She mistakenly claims that McRae made the first recording of “Guess Who I Saw Today?”a distinction belonging to her friend, Chicago singer-pianist Audrey Morris, from whom McRae learned the song. On Page 110, Gourse writes, “It was her third album for Blue Note, Carmen McRae at the Great American Music Hall, which turned out to be a very good seller, probably the best-selling album of her career over the long haul.” Eleven pages later, we read, “But Carmen had no smash hit albums; the closest approximation over time was The Great American Song Book album done live at Donte’s in 1971.”
To stretch her skimpy text to 122 pages, Gourse cannibalizes two chaptersone on McRae and one on the singer’s piano accompanist, Norman Simmonsfrom Louis’ Children, her 1984 history of jazz singing. For additional padding, the author interpolates a digressive, perfunctory six-page history of bebop, which she seems to think was known as “the new thing,” a phrase coined several decades later to characterize the avant-garde explorations of saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his followers. Prune away this recycled and extraneous stuff, along with lengthy excerpts gleaned from vintage newspaper and magazine articles, and the author’s maddening repetition of nearly every fact and observationeither Gourse has an attention-span deficiency or she assumes that her readers mustand her book contains barely enough substance to sustain a chapter.
McRae and I crossed paths perhaps a dozen times over a period of three decades. We were more than acquaintances if less than friends. I first met her in 1960, when, as a member of the Cornell University Jazz Society, I booked her for a campus concert. At 20, I was so cowed by being in her presence that I could barely stutter a few words of admiration. Her Cornell concert was magical, because of her beauty as well as her singing. In those days, she was a glamorous woman, with a strong, Nefertiti-like profile, a statuesque figure, and long, tapered fingers that she eloquently used to underscore lyrics. I last saw her in the fall of 1990, when I served as associate producer of her final album, Sarah, a tribute to her recently deceased friend Vaughan. (If for nothing else, Gourse deserves grudging respect for pigheaded consistency. In Sassy, her 1993 biography of Vaughan, Gourse misstates the date Vaughan dieda blunder she repeats in Miss Jazz.)
I experienced McRae’s evil side at Shirley Horn’s home soon after the Sarah recording sessions. Following her performance at Anton’s on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, McRae, her manager, and her traveling companion arrived at Horn’s house for a late supper. McRae, who by this time was not in good health and had grown quite stout and careless about her appearance, entered the living room without saying hello, cocked her ear at the tape that was playing on the stereo, and inquired about the identity of the guitarist. I volunteered that it was Toots Thielemans. “Who the fuck asked you, Joel?” she snapped. Reacting impulsively, I replied in kind: “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, Carmen?” A brief silence ensued, after which we both pretended that the exchange had never occurred. She relished the mealbeef and mushrooms stewed in wine, and greens cooked with country hamand then made a memorable exit. Before the table was cleared, she belched twice, broke wind once, and called for
I’ve subsequently learned that I’d been subjected to a typical McRae trial by fire. She’d sock it to you to see if you could take it. If you stood up to her, she’d crumble like a cookie. (The next morning, she phoned Horn to apologize for offending me.)
Anecdotes like mine, and surely there are many others who could have contributed them, would have injected some color into Gourse’s pallid biography, which is largely devoted to numbing lists of songs McRae recorded, venues where she appeared, and musicians she worked with. Here are a few samples of Gourse’s careless, inscrutable writing, which could be characterized as childish, if one had no respect for children:
In July 1961, Carmen appeared at Basin Street in New York with the Dave Brubeck quartet. The song “Take Five,” written by Paul Desmond, Brubeck’s alto player, was included on the live recording released on the Columbia label. The album sold more than a million copies, and the song was Carmen’s biggest hit.
Even so, she never has a million-selling record. Not even her big hit single, “Skyliner,” wins a Grammy or sells a million copies. [Note: Gourse omits McRae’s two Columbia collaborations with Brubeck from her discography, including the live album, recorded in 1964.]
Carmen’s reputation was growing in those days. Among the men who admired her was Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion, with whom she had a romantic relationship for a while. (Exactly when isn’t certain, but she definitely had a liaison with him.)
Her eyebrows arched up over the bridge of her nose, curving in exactly the opposite direction from most other people’s.
It would require a team of researchers to catalogue all of the blunders in Miss Jazz. There’s a roll call of misspelled namesit’s Carol Sloane, not “Sloan”; Johnny Mandel, not “Mandell”; Sallie Blair, not “Sally”along with mountains of misinformation. (McRae did not record an album for the Mercury label, only three singles. The showroom in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel is called the Cinegrill, not “City Grill.”) Perhaps most objectionable are assertions presented without a shred of reliable evidence: “Carmen’s love for Billie was so great that they even had a love affair.” (Gourse’s source? An “intimate male friend of Carmen’s who requires that his identity be withheld.”) “She always wore high-necked dresses to cover the pale, jagged scar on her chest from an accident with boiling oil that occurred when she was a child.” (McRae told an acquaintance of mine that the scar was the result of a knife wound inflicted by Clarke. In the book’s first photograph, a 1954 publicity shot, she wears a strapless gown.) “Once back in California…the doctors put a ventilator down her throat and ruined her voice. She never regained it at its full strength.” (The late Shirley Thomas, the singer’s traveling companion at the time, told me that the ventilator was inserted in a New York hospital after McRae’s 1991 collapse. McRae’s stubborn struggles to remove it damaged her voice.)
Gourse’s biographies of Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, and Thelonious Monk were nearly as slipshod and inarticulate as Carmen McRae: Miss Jazz. Fortunately, the lives of those artists have subsequently been chronicled by more competent writers. Because McRae never achieved widespread public recognition, I fear that the inevitable failure of Gourse’s book will discourage publishers from releasing another McRae biography anytime soon. But at least we can hope that this debacle will also delay Gourse from claiming her next victim. CP