Carmen McRae sings 'Round Midnight
Today is Carmen McRae’s 93rd birthday anniversary, and here she is singing “’Round Midnight” on Jazz Casual, the television show hosted by Ralph J. Gleason, the San Francisco-based journalist and music critic. The year is 1962, and Carmen’s accompanists include Norman Simmons, piano, Victor Sproles, bass, and Walter Perkins, drums.
McRae was a native New Yorker who grew up in the musical hothouse of modern jazz. A gifted pianist as well as singer, she played at Minton’s in the early forties with Dizzy Gillespie; sang with the bands of Benny Carter and Count Basie in 1944, then toured with Mercer Ellington and made her recording debut as a pianist with him in 1946, the same year she married the famously influential bebop drummer Kenny Clarke.
Carmen came to prominence as a vocalist through the series of recordings she made for Decca in the 1950’s, some of which are now anthologized on the reissues “Sings the Great American Songbook” and “Here to Stay.” An early masterpiece, “Birds of a Feather,” features Ben Webster (under the name, “A. Tenorman”) and finds Carmen singing a set of ornithologically inspired tunes like “Skylark” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” on arrangements by Ralph Burns.
Will Friedwald offered this keen assessment of McRae’s work in Jazz Singing. “Her sharp, occasionally biting tone approaches that of Billie Holiday; her method of altering melody lines has strong ties to the Sarah Vaughan-Billy Eckstine school, and the knowledge of harmonic practice (as opposed to theory) it requires to paraphrase lines as surefootedly as McRae does far exceeds that of your average scat singer. If you never noticed any of this, it’s because McRae doesn’t want you to…as McRae preaches a return to the [Bing] Crosby ideal of hidden technique…One forever walks away from Carmen McRae records liking her tremendously but not being exactly sure why.”
You’ll have a chance to like Carmen all over again in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode as we’ll hear her tributes to Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, and the rare take she made of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” from the session that Mort Fega produced on her in 1963.