From the Archives: Masterful, Innovative Jazz Singer-Pianist Carmen McRae Dies

Times Staff Writer

Carmen McRae, one of this era’s premier vocalists, whose subtle interpretations of complex tonalities made her a favorite among both jazz musicians and their fiercely loyal fans, has died at her Beverly Hills home.

Miss McRae died Thursday night at the age of 74, it was reported Friday.

She had fallen into a near-coma four days earlier, a month after being hospitalized for a stroke.

Although her work was often overshadowed by the popular successes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, there was, said Dave Brubeck, “no one like her.”


Benny Carter, the pioneer big-band leader who met Miss McRae at a Harlem nightclub when she was 18 and featured her as a singer six years later in 1944, was asked to assess her unique voice:

“I wouldn’t try,” he said Friday. “That’s like asking me to define jazz. . . . She always had her own individual way with a song.”

Last December, the National Endowment for the Arts named Miss McRae one of its masters of jazz, hailing her “instinctive feeling for rhythm, her skillful vocal technique, her innovative scat singing, as well as her relaxed manner of presentation.”

That essentially was her final achievement and it came as she was bedridden. She had been experiencing respiratory problems since 1990, when she first had difficulty breathing during a performance at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City.

It proved to be her last public performance.

With Fitzgerald and the late Vaughan, Miss McRae formed the troika of female American jazz singers.

She resisted efforts to commercialize her art, staying true to her jazz experiences and interpreting classic show tunes and blues with dazzling improvisation.


The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she spun a masterful web of song while moving around a bandstand in a crouch--cradling the microphone as if it were a saxophone and then pulling herself erect for a dramatic coda--sometimes a single note she seemed to hold for an eternity.

A pianist as well as a singer, Miss McRae performed a repertoire that included “God Bless the Child,” a song closely associated with her biggest influence, Billie Holiday; Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”; Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Brubeck, known for his complex, contrapuntal arrangements, said Friday that Miss McRae was always easy to work with. They recorded often in the early 1960s.

Faced with the most convoluted of his tunes, she would say, “You just play it; I can sing it,” he recalled.

Through Teddy Wilson, Holiday’s accompanist and arranger, Miss McRae had met the addicted blues legend when she was in her late teens.

“I adored her before I ever met her,” Miss McRae told the Washington Post in 1983. Like Holiday, she learned to inhale a lyric and then breathe life into the words she exhaled.


Miss McRae said she encouraged Holiday at a time when the legendary singer’s talent was becoming diluted by alcohol and drugs.

They would be out of an evening, but Miss McRae would have to leave early, she said.

“Halfway through the night I would be so stoned and out of it I’d have to leave and go home,” she said.

Holiday eventually was destroyed by drugs and liquor, but Miss McRae quickly abandoned that lifestyle. Occasionally, though, she would “throw a note” in the Holiday tradition, a remembrance of her old friend.

Miss McRae was born in New York City’s Harlem in 1920 (although some references say 1922). Her parents arranged for lessons so she might become a concert pianist, but “I’d keep sheet music of pop tunes hidden among the classical stuff in the piano bench, and when everyone was out of earshot I let go with the pops,” she told the New York Post in 1966.

At 17, Miss McRae won an amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theater and went on to sing with Carter, Count Basie and Earl (Fatha) Hines.

After World War II, she became a solo singer-pianist, first in Chicago and then in New York.


With her expressive features surrounded by an arrangement of finely curled hair, and her dreamy expression, she quickly became popular through her appearances, and then through recordings.

Her first album came out in 1954, and in 1955 she tied with Ella Fitzgerald for best female vocalist in a Metronome magazine poll. She had won the Down Beat magazine award for best new star a year earlier.

In all, Miss McRae made more than 20 albums, including “I Am Music on Blue Note,” “Sound of Silence,” “Just a Little Lovin’,” “Portrait of Carmen,” “It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feelings,” “Carmen’s Gold” and “You Can’t Hide Love.”

“Jazz is a feeling,” she once said. “If it has to be explained, it don’t mean a damn. If the performer gets it, that’s it. If the audience gets it, that’s it. . . . Jazz is an interpretation.”

She was married twice: to be-bop drummer Kenny Clark and to pianist Ike Isaacs. Both marriages ended in divorce.

There will be no services, at Miss McRae’s request.

“I don’t want a memorial,” she told friends. “I don’t want a funeral. I don’t want flowers. All I want to be remembered for is my music.”