The Singer's Singer's Singer

by David Hajdu | March 26, 2010

I don't mean to imply that we're friends or anything, because I know him far less well than he knows a zillion other people, but I happened to be at the same jazz club that Tony Bennett went to a few nights ago, and we ended up talking for a little while. Bennett and I and our wives (who are about the same age, I think) had all gone to Dizzy's, one of the three glorious performance venues in the otherwise cheesy Jazz at Lincoln Center building, to see the pianist and singer Barbara Carroll. As a matter of fact, I have seen Bennett in Barbara Carroll's audiences at least half a dozen times over the last decade or so. He comes and takes a table close to the piano and studies her, much as Sinatra used to do when he traveled to 52nd Street—to the original Famous Door, in fact—to marvel at Sylvia Syms and learn. Carroll, like Syms (and, of course, Sinatra and Bennett at their best), is a subtle artist deeply attuned both to the meaning and to the subtext of song lyrics. But Carroll is also something more: a first-rate bebop pianist who started out, before she sang a note in public, as a peer of the bop piano innovators Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Joe Albany. The way many people describe her, as one of the greatest women in jazz, makes me want to place the heads of those people under a piano lid and push, though Carroll routinely shrugs off such idiocy as well meaning. (Unfortunately, there's no video of Carroll online that fully captures what she does.) At the end of her set at Dizzy's, I mentioned to Carroll that Bennett said he worships her, and I asked her if she admires any singers in the same way, and she replied, "Oh ... there are so many! Carmen McRae ..." and then she paused, struggling for a moment to think of others she considered worthy of comparison with McRae. All of this leads me to share a pair of stunning video clips of the late McRae doing "Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk (whom I discussed in my first Famous Door post two months ago) and "Love for Sale" by Cole Porter (which came up in my earlier post about Abbey Lincoln). Both are from a 1962 episode of "Jazz Casual," the syndicated TV show that the writer Ralph Gleason hosted in the Sixties. Here, accompanied by Norman Simmons on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums, is a singer's singer's singer. I should add that, as I post this, the "Love for Sale" clip has had only 132 views—fewer, no doubt, than the video of "Telephone" by Lady Gaga and Beyonce has had since the beginning of this sentence.

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