Pianist Barbara Carroll: The Woman Who Came to Dinner : Jazz: She overcame gender prejudice playing in New York supper clubs. She has made a new album and now wants to play in concerts and festivals.
Barbara Carroll can remember when there was, for a female musician, a powerful irony to the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”
Now on a six-week visit to the Westwood Marquis, where she performs Wednesdays through Saturdays, the harmonically imaginative pianist from Worcester, Mass., has security in the form of six or seven months a year at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. But it wasn’t always that easy.
“When I first came to New York,” she says, “I found there were all kinds of prejudices, lots of closed doors. As a female, I had to prove myself in front.
“I didn’t know anyone in town except for a pianist I’d met in Boston. He used to get calls for Saturday night casuals, and if he was busy he wanted to recommend me; but he knew that if he told them I was a female there was no way I could get the job. So he’d say, ‘I can’t make it, but I’ll send along Bobby Carroll.’ At 8 p.m. Saturday I’d show up, and the bandleader would say ‘Who are you?’ I’d tell him, and after he’d recovered and gotten up off the floor, it all worked out OK.”
Her first regular job in town put her in the right company. “An agent got me into the Down Beat on 52nd Street with two great musicians--Chuck Wayne on guitar and Clyde Lombardi on bass, and we were opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s band! It was the kind of situation I’d always fantasized about.”
Once past the initial experience of proving herself, she made her way into recording studios: dates for Discovery Records, Atlantic and RCA. She has been recording off and on ever since; recently, after a seven-year absence, an album entitled “Old Friends” for Audiophile, leading a splendid quartet (Phil Bodner on reeds, Grady Tate on drums and Jay Leonhart on bass) helped to establish, potentially for a new audience, that she is by no means limited to solo piano in posh East Side clubs.
“I want to do more concerts and festivals,” she says. “Although I enjoy working alone, for concerts I use a bass player and often a drummer. I’d really like to get back into the mainstream of music.”
Carroll has been widowed twice. Her first husband, the bassist Joe Shulman, recorded with Duke Ellington and played on many of Carroll’s albums. Later, married to the agent Bert Block, she went into a near-total retirement, raised a daughter (now grown) and began to re-emerge in the late 1970s.
She has always sung the occasional vocal in an unpretentiously serviceable style. Her idol is Billie Holiday, one of whose blues she sings in her show.
“One of the great thrills of my life was accompanying Billie. We were both booked to do the ‘Today’ show, when Dave Garroway was hosting it. This was maybe six months before Billie died, in 1959. We were a little concerned about her reliability, because you had to get up at 5 a.m. to do that show. Anyhow, the car picked me up and we went to get Billie at her apartment. Well, she came out right on time in this beautiful mink coat, went with us to rehearsal and did everything just right.”
Since the early years, Carroll has watched and listened with pleasure as a growing number of women musicians have risen to prominence.
“The great thing about the situation today is that there’s one condescending remark you just never hear people use anymore: ‘Gee, you play good for a girl.’ ”