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Memories of Carmen McRae

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Carol Sloane's individualism as a singer grows, in part, out of her adoration of Carmen McRae. In the confusion of the past week, I overlooked Sloane's tribute to McRae on what would have been Carmen's eighty-eighth birthday. Here is some of what she wrote:

When she laughed, the room vibrated; when she spewed venom, people, animals and birds hastily fled the scene.

Carol's assessment nails the yin and yang of the phenomenon that was Carmen McRae. To read all of her tribute to McRae and see the stately photograph she chose to accompany it, go here.

My own encounters with Carmen were few but unforgettable. The first was in 1956. Gus Mancuso and I were in San Francisco for his first recording session for Fantasy. We had just checked into a musicians' hotel in the Tenderloin, not far from the Blackhawk. We were in the elevator on the way up to our floor. The car stopped and in walked a woman looking like this. She rode one floor and got out.

“My God," Gus said after the door closed, “that was Carmen McRae."

“Why didn't you say something to her?" I said.

“I couldn't," he told me. “I was speechless."

At the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1968 or '69, I was assigned to introduce McRae at a concert. Before her set we spent a few moments chatting. After the concert, we socialized briefly with other people. Four years later, I had moved to New York. Late one night after I got off the air, I went up to Harlem where McRae was appearing at the Club Barron with her trio. I arrived as she was starting the last song of a set, went to the bar and ordered a drink. A couple of large men who were not quite sober looked me over, uttered comments that could not have been interpreted as words of warm greeting, and began edging closer.

The moment the song ended, Carmen walked briskly over to me and said, “We know each other, don't we. It's good to see you again." She aimed the power of her glare at the aggressive welcoming committee. “Let's have a seat," she said. We went to a table. Before the break ended, Dizzy Gillespie walked in, carrying his trumpet case. He joined us and when the next set started, Dizzy sat in with Carmen. It was an unforgettable collaboration.

When that set was over and it was time for me to go, Carmen asked one of the heavies who had started moving in on me to see that I got into a cab. He escorted me to the street, hailed a taxi and waited until the cab pulled away.

When I next saw Carmen, several years later, I said, “I owe you one." She smiled softly. And that was that.

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