December 02, 2007


Carmen Mercedes McRae, born April 8, 1920 was an American jazz singer. Considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th Century, it was her behind-the-beat phrasing and her ironic interpretations of song lyrics that made her memorable.

Carmen McRae was one of the earliest, and best, bop vocalists. Her scat improvisations and choice of material would have been daunting for any singer, but her real fortitude was in the emotional depth she brought to every lyric
McRae was born in Harlem, New York City , to West Indian parents. She began studying piano as a child. As a teenager she came to the attention of Teddy Wilson and his wife, the composer Irene Kitchings Wilson. Through their influence, one of McRae’s early songs, "Dream of Life", was recorded by Wilson’s longtime collaborator Billie Holiday.

By the late 1940s she was well known among the modern jazz musicians who gathered at Minton's Playhouse, Harlem's most famous jazz club, where she was the intermission pianist. But it was while working in Brooklyn that she came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler. Her five year association with Decca yielded 12 LPs.
Her live 1987 duets with Betty Carter are highly regarded.

The musicians she sang with include Benny Carter, Mercer Ellington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Dave Brubeck, and Louis Armstrong. As a result of her early friendship with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with Lady Day.

She was married to drummer Kenny Clarke and the double bassist Ike Isaacs.
"She had the musical sense to know that when she had five notes to hit, she'd find the one in the range where she heard it in her head and would go for it," said drummer Joey Baron, who recorded with McRae. "That left so much space that was full of feeling rather than filled up with cluttered clich├ęs. And she just swung so hard!"

McRae was a prodigy on piano, she wrote "Dream of Life," which Billie Holiday recorded while McRae was in her teens. She sang with Benny Carter's orchestra in 1944 and with Count Basie and Mercer Ellington a few years later. During this time she also worked as a singer and pianist at Minton's Playhouse where she absorbed rhythmic ideas from the boppers who made the New York club their headquarters. She began recording as a leader in 1953 and continued to work for various labels and lead different groups for the next four decades. In 1988, she recorded a unique album of Thelonious Monk compositions.

McRae crossed over on Nov. 10, 1994.

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