Tender and warm with a ballad, Carmen McRae was one of the great singers of jazz, finding the depth of feeling in the lyrics of the songs she interpreted. An accomplished pianist who in her early career accompanied herself, she occasionally returned to the piano later in her career.
McRae learned piano through private lessons and was discovered by Irene Wilson Kitchings, a musician and former wife of pianist Teddy Wilson. McRae sang with the Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Mercer Ellington big bands during the 1940s and made her recorded debut as Carmen Clarke while the wife of drummer Kenny Clarke. During the bebop revolution at Minton's Playhouse, McRae was an intermission pianist. The Playhouse is likely where she first heard Thelonious Monk's music, which influenced her piano playing and musical sense. In the early 1950s, she worked with the Mat Mathews Quintet. She signed her first significant recording contract with Decca in 1954.
Working as a soloist, she gained wide recognition and was often seen in the pantheon of jazz singers that included Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, whom she idolized and later paid homage to on a recording. Her greatest idol was Billie Holiday, whom she feted on records and in performances on many occasions.
Although she admired these singers, she never resorted to sheer mimicry and developed her own original style. Notably, she recorded alongside Louis Armstrong on Dave Brubeck's extended work The Real Ambassadors, a social commentary written with his wife Iola. She made several film and television appearances, and performed as an actress in the landmark television miniseries Roots. In the late 1980s, she returned to her first love, recording a full album of Monk's music with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, Mike Ferro, Sally Swisher, and Bernie Hanighen. The album became one of her signature recordings.
McRae performed many times at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where she shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie and Phil Woods.
She was forced to retire for health reasons in 1991.
Here to Stay, MCA/GRP, 1955-59
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