Carmen McRae: The voice of jazz

Carmen McRae was an American jazz singer, born on April 8, 1922. She died on November 10, 1994 at the age of 72. She is considered one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century. Her quirky phrasing and humorous interpretations of lyrics made her an essential vocalist in the world of vocal jazz.

Carmen McRae’s youth

Carmen McRae - Enfance

McRae was born in Harlem, New York, USA. Her father, Osmond, and mother, Evadne (Gayle) McRae, are originally from Jamaica. She began studying piano at the age of eight, and jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington populated her home. At the age of 17, she was introduced to singer Billie Holiday. As a teenager, McRae caught the attention of Teddy Wilson and his wife, composer Irene Kitchings. One of McRae’s first songs, “Dream of Life”, was, thanks to their influence, performed in 1939 by Wilson’s long-time collaborator Billie Holiday. McRae considered Holiday his main influence.

Early career

In her teens and early twenties, McRae was a pianist at Minton’s Playhouse. She also sang backup and worked as a secretary. It was at Minton’s Playhouse that she met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, and was offered her first major concert as pianist in Benny’s Big Band (1944). She also worked in Count Basie’s orchestra (1944) and, under the name “Carmen Clarke” (after being married to Kenny Clarke), made her first recording as pianist for the Mercer Ellington Band (1946-1947). But it was during her stay in Brooklyn that she came to the attention of Decca’s Milt Gabler. Her five-year relationship with Decca produced 12 albums.

Interlude in Chicago

In 1948, she moved to Chicago with impressionist and actor George Kirby, with whom she fell in love. After their relationship ended, she was employed as a singer and pianist at the Archway Lounge. She was a regular pianist for almost four years in various Chicago venues before returning to New York in 1952. It was in Chicago that she created her personal style. Those years in Chicago, McRae told Jazz Forum, “gave me everything I have today. It was by far the best education I ever received”.

The New Yorkers are back in New York

In New York in the early 1950s, McRae landed the recording contract that launched her career. She was named Best Female Vocalist of the Year by DownBeat magazine. MacRae was married twice to drummer Kenny Clarke from 1944 to 1956, although they separated in 1948. She was also married to bassist Ike Isaacs in the second half of the 1950s. Both marriages ended in divorce.

Among her most memorable recordings are Mad About The Man (1957) with composer Noel Coward, Boy Meets Girl (1957) with Sammy Davis, Jr. participation in Dave Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors (1961) with Louis Armstrong, a tribute album entitled You’re Looking’ at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs) (1983) and live duets with Betty Carter, The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (1987), with Dave Brubeck and George Shearing. She concluded her career with tributes toThelonious Monk, Carmen Sings Monk (1990) and Sarah Vaughan, Sarah: dedicated to You (1991).

After her first encounter with Billie Holiday, she never performed without singing at least one tune associated with “Lady Day”, and in 1983 recorded an album in her memory entitled for Lady Day, released in 1995, featuring songs such as “Good Morning Heartache”, “Them There Eyes”, “Lover Man”, “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain”. McRae recorded with a number of top jazz artists on albums such as Take Five Live (1961) with Dave Brubeck, Two for the Road (1980) with George Shearing, Cal Tjader. The two subsequent albums are part of an eight-year partnership with Concord Jazz.


Carmen McRae - Performances

McRae has been performing in jazz clubs across the U.S. – and around the world – for over fifty years. She has often performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival (1961-63, 1966 1971, 1973 and 1982), and appeared with Duke Ellington’s band at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1980, performing “Don’t Travel Much All the Time”, and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989.

The singer left New York for Southern California in the second half of the 1960s, but appeared frequently in New York, usually at the Blue Note, where she played two shows a year for most of the 1980s. In May and June 1988, she worked with Harry Connick Jr. on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (S. Clare and Stept.) Stept) in New York at RCA Studios for her debut album, 20. She was forced to stop performing in May 1991, following respiratory failure a few hours after finishing her engagement at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.


Solo albums

  • 1955: On Special Request
  • 1956: Torchy!
  • 1957: Lune bleue
  • 1957: After Glow
  • 1957: Fou de l’homme
  • 1957: Carmen pour les gens cool
  • 1958: Birds of a Feather
  • 1958: Livre de ballades
  • 1959: Quand tu n’es pas là
  • 1959: It’s Carmen McRae
  • 1961: Carmen McRae sings Lover Man and other Billie Holiday classics – Guests include Nat Adderley, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis…
  • 1963: Something Wonderful – Guest: Buddy Bregman
  • 1967: Pour la première fois de ma vie
  • 1968: Portrait of Carmen
  • 1971: 1971: The Great American Songbook: Live at Donte’s – Guest: Joe Pass
  • 1978: I’m Coming Home Again 1978: I’m Coming Home Again – Guests: Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford
  • 1982: Heat Wave – Guest: Cal Tjader
  • 1983: You’re Looking at Me
  • 1988: Beautiful & Mellow – Live at Birdland West
  • 1988: Carmen Sings Monk

Albums co-produced with other artists

  • 1961: “Take Five” at Basin Street East – With the Dave Brubeck Band
  • 1980: Two For The Road with George Shearing
  • 1988: The Carmen McRae 1988: The Carmen McRae Betty Carter Duets – With Betty Carter

Contributions to albums by other artists

  • 1957: Sammy Davis Jr: Boy Meets Girl
  • 1959: Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy And Bess
  • 1960: Dave Brubeck: Tonight Only
  • 1962: Louis Armstrong: The Real Ambassadors with Dave Brubeck Band. Dave Brubeck Band


On November 10, 1994, McRae died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, aged 74. She had been in a semi-coma four days earlier, a month before being admitted to hospital with a stroke.

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