Octojazzarian profile: barbara carroll
For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an ongoing series celebrating these living legends, pioneers who were first-hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is pianist/vocalist Barbara Carroll.
Unlike Billy Tipton, the infamous musician who hid her gender because she couldn't get work as a woman, pianist Barbara Carroll (born Barbara Carole Goldsmith in 1925) knew she could play the piano, and was not ashamed or afraid of anything—least of all, about being a woman. Why even bring that up in this day and age where there are entire female bands and groups? "They told me that jazz was a male thing," she stated matter-of-factly. One of her bios states that after graduating from the New England Conservatory, she hired an all-girl trio for her initial gigs on a U.S.O. tour during World War II. We now set the record straight: "In the 1940s I worked with an all female trio called—now get this—'Eleanor Sherry and the Swing Hearts.' Sherry was the leader/singer, and I remember that the guitarist was Marian Gange [pronounced like the river in India w/o the final 's'], who had been with Ina Ray Hutton. There were various bass players. Unlike today, it was hard to find female bass players. We were unique."
Not unlike her other pioneering female colleagues, pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams, vibist Marjorie Hyams, guitarist Mary Osborne, and her close friend Marian McPartland [see a previous OctoJAZZarians] Barbara soon ventured onto 52nd St. with a trio that included guitarist Chuck Wayne and bassist Clyde Lombardi. "It was never easy. The guys would simply dismiss me before I even played a note." It didn't help that she was a tall, willowy redhead with drop-dead good looks—and a brain to match. Need I reiterate that she could play? You could say that the bebop cats were threatened. Nah! That could never be, not on 52nd St., just because many were returning from armed forces duty looking for work. Nah! "When they did hire me it was a lure; [again] you were unique."
Barbara's first gig on The Street was at the Down Beat opposite the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band that included such stars-to-be as John Lewis, Ray Brown, James Moody, and others. "[Having just come from Massachusetts] I was overwhelmed to be on 52nd St. working opposite Dizzy, who was one of my idols."
The Tipton analogy might be a bad one, in that Tipton did it in the Mid- and Northwest, where women didn't do such things as play jazz. This was New York City; there were other avenues to travel. Society listeners caught-on, and during an extended gig at the Embers, a white tablecloth-ed boîte, she met and married bassist Joe Shulman, who became part of her trio.
Other chic gigs followed: the Hickory House; Bemelmann's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel for a quarter century; and, since 2003, Sundays at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. She's there with two added pieces of ammunition: some years ago she added vocals to her repertoire, and bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhart.
"The Carlyle started as a two-week gig; then two months; then two years. I didn't work all year 'round. Eight months a year, always taking off for the summer. Bobby Short was across the hall at the Café Carlyle. I loved it. Twenty-five years is a lovely run." Ms. Carroll seems to be given to understatement. Playing solo piano for a barroom crowd in NYC—no matter how chic—for that length of time is far more that "lovely;" it's a bloomin' Guinness Book miracle. After a while, she took off Monday nights and hired subs such as Mike Longo. Good taste seems to be her signature not only in the material she chooses, but in the people she hires.
And the people who hire her. Barbara did a Broadway show for no less than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. I made the mistake of calling "Me and Juliet" something less than one of their usual successes. After a moment of (I hope) faux umbrage, she explained. "It was a show within a show, or rather a show about a show, [based on that British, "West Side Story"-thing, Romeo and Juliet]. I took the part of the on-stage rehearsal pianist for the characters who appear in the show."
Carroll Back-story: "I was new to New York, working at the Embers, when a representative from the William Morris Agency came in and told me that Rodgers & Hammerstein were looking for a pianist to be on stage, and even say a few lines." She demurred, saying that she was a jazz pianist and very happy playing at the Embers. "He kept coming in and bugging me about auditioning for them, so I did, early in the morning. You know how jazz musicians are about doing anything early in the morning."
Carroll went with her trio to the Majestic Theatre, where on a bare stage in the glare of a rehearsal light, she managed to see three people in the audience: "Mr. Rodgers, Mr. Hammerstein, and George Abbott." She pronounced the names dramatically, slowly pausing for effect between each one. My own stomach felt her nervousness. "You know, I wasn't even nervous because I didn't even want the gig," she said with a twinkle. "I figured it would be wise to play a Richard Rodgers song, so we played 'The Lady Is A Tramp' sans the Lorenz Hart lyrics. Usually they stop you after 16 bars or so. But they let us play on for a chorus or more."
What's not to love? They knew a good thing when they heard it. The gig was theirs. The whole trio was hired: bassist Shulman and drummer Herbie Wasserman. The show ran for a year on Broadway, and left us a memorable song. "No Other Love" was originally used in Rodgers' symphonic poem for the epic television series about WWII, "Victory At Sea," with lyrics added by Hammerstein. Barbara played it in the show; it was later sung by Isabel Bigley ("Guys and Dolls") and Bill Hayes (The Arthur Godfrey TV Show), who had the hit single.
Remnants of her brief Broadway sojourn remain in her Algonquin shows. While she has always been a jazz player, she still favors the Great American Songbook, which she infuses with her first musical love. "Jazz is jazz. I play improvised music influenced by bebop. Everybody caters a little to their audiences. But that does not necessarily mean that I don't play what I want to play. What I play may just be what they want to hear."
At the Carroll performances personally witnessed, I find no pandering to what she might think her audiences want to hear. True, she stretches a bit more at jazz festivals and/or concerts; and, yes, there's more Tin Pan Alley at the hotel room dates. But in the end, it's all Carroll, and all personal. "At Bemelmann's bar I took requests. When you're a solo pianist that happens. And if you want to play it, you play it. Or not. I do not have set shows. Jay [Leonhart] and I share a wonderful rapport, an extraordinary musical marriage, if you will. I treasure it, because it's different all the time. I have total freedom, and he goes along with it. He has the talent, knowledge and the enthusiasm, so I never have anything written-out for him. What's more, he inspires me and maybe once in a while I might inspire him." [There is now an entire Leonhart musical clan: trumpeter son Michael, vocalist daughter Carolyn, and son-in-law reedman Wayne Escoffery.]
Because of the freedom Carroll offers, other bassists desire to (and have) played with her: Joe Benjamin, Aaron Bell, Rick Petrone, Frank Tate, Sean Smith, and sometimes Steve LaSpina. While there have been requests by sitters-in at the Algonquin, Barbara does not encourage them. She did go on tour with Kris Kristofferson. "My then-husband [Bert Block] managed Kris, so I went out with them. We didn't have much in common, but the middle ground was the blues so we played together a little.
"[Bert] managed and booked Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday." [Block was also a talented photographer, and many of his photographs adorn the Carroll apartment walls. The domineering grand piano is covered with family photos, mostly of the grandkids.] "But, as you know, the '60s were bad for jazz. The Beatles phenomenon happened; music went in that direction, and for anyone playing jazz it was a hard time." As if by divinely perfect timing came the birth of her daughter, Susan in 1962. "I took a break," she said.
Carroll is stoic, yet optimistic. "Jazz has always had a tough time," she said. "But it never dies-out completely. There's been a dumbing-down of culture in this country, music included. Generally, I listen to what I like, and that does not include hard rock, hip-hop and rap. I feel there's nothing for me to get from that area. That does not mean that there aren't talented people doing those things, but they just don't appeal to me. On the other hand, there are composers like [and Richard Rodgers' grandson] Adam Guettel ('Light In The Piazza')." Sometimes the sheer volume level of contemporary music upsets Carroll. "It's too loud for me; I just can't handle it. Why does it have to be at that volume?!" I opined that it's for the young and perhaps they can't hear anymore.
[Our meeting took place prior to the Obama election.] "At present the country is in a very bad mess. When people are hurting financially, they will not be going to Broadway shows. They will not be going to the Algonquin, or to jazz clubs [with high cover-charges]. When personal budgets get cut, it's the entertainment dollar which goes first." [My dentist says they are the first. Go figure.] "Let's hope the election will be favorable [so far so good] and we'll come out of this. The executive branch has got to surround itself with advisors who will help dictate the direction: the cabinet, the Supreme Court. I remember the Great Depression. While we weren't starving, I remember my mother going to work for the first time in her life. She worked on the W.P.A. [an F.D.R./New Deal job creation program] as a seamstress. It was not a pretty time."
It has been said that hard times benefit jazz. When I put that to Carroll she laughed, to these ears a bit nervously, and said that times haven't been that bad yet. "There is a theory that movies do benefit. But I feel that people do need help during bad times in the form of some kind of therapy, which music certainly is."
During the 1950s, a high time for jazz, Carroll was a highly visible presence. For instance, Dave Garroway, a Chicago TV host who began the Today show, loved jazz. Barbara was on camera a great deal. "On one occasion they had Billie Holiday booked as well as me. Billie's accompanist was indisposed, so they asked me if I would fill in. I was young and thrilled to play 'God Bless The Child' with her, as well as three others: 'Lover Come Back To Me,' "You've Changed,' and 'Easy To Remember.'" Barbara remembered them as though it were yesterday. Imagine that happening today, when every guest is promoting their latest recording, loudly? She saved the audio which was sneaked to her. "It was unusual in that I rarely played with others. I usually had my own groups. I'm not a jam session player. I do remember a place called Georgie Auld's Tin Pan Alley on West 49th St. in NYC. [Auld was a swing band saxist who taught DeNiro to play in New York New York and Poitier in Paris Blues.] We all sat-in there, including Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett, and Georgie, of course."
A quarter-century in one room, then five years in another, is some kind of record in The Apple. Barbara sums it all up by saying, "Playing the piano has never lost its appeal for me. I love singing, which I recently do more and more. I always knew all the lyrics, but I was afraid to open my mouth, as I don't have strong pipes and I lacked the confidence. When you're doing solo piano someone will always come up to you and say, 'I love that song. Do you know the words?' So little by little I began to sing and gained more confidence. The point is that I don't worry about it anymore; I'm no longer neurotic about not being able to sustain notes. Now I try to impart the story of the lyrics. It's all about getting the people to understand what you're singing." I reminded her that Nat "King" Cole would have remained among the most influential of jazz pianists if he hadn't begun singing, which made him rich and famous as well.
Along the way Carroll met some of the Golden Age composers. Among them was Harold Arlen. "Talk about your singing piano players! [I knew him when he was] Hyman Arluck from Rochester, NY—a son of a Cantor who wanted him to become one like himself. Harold found his way to Harlem; the combination of Jewish Cantorial music, jazz, and the blues gave his compositions that special poignancy. You can see his influence on people like Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Ethel Waters."
Then there were Barbara's affiliations with Johnny Mercer and Cy Coleman. "Mercer [who did not play] could get into his cups, and some nastiness and racism ensued, but he wrote and sang his own songs like no one else save Cy. Cy and I were close. He was a remarkable jazz pianist who had a trio which played some of the same rooms I did, at different times." Coleman, who wrote and played the theme for the Playboy Penthouse television show, became its house pianist for guests. He was good enough to have affiliated himself with great lyricists, Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh among them. He wrote hit tunes as well as Broadway shows, winning Grammy and Tony awards along that way. "Cy was always upbeat and had that great sense of humor. He was a very positive force in our business." I personally found him to be conversant on any topic you chose.
Although Carroll is always singing and playing jazz, she has become a darling of the "too precious" cabaret crowd. "I think the word 'cabaret' has become an umbrella term for people who sing and/or play [in certain venues]." Still, there are those, such as Bobby Short, Mike Renzi, and Barbara Carroll, who crossed over. "I hate those categories," she concluded. Duke made it easy for everyone. He called it "Beyond Category." Barbara Carroll fits the genre.
Regrets: "I would have liked to have had a better education. I would like to have gone to a liberal arts college. And the fact that I'm not a ballerina … Next life."
"By the way, I have no qualms about people knowing how old I am. I love what I'm doing and pleased to be still doing it."
Mike Longo: "When I was a young man starting out as a jazz pianist, I came across a recording of a jazz pianist by the name of Barbara Carroll. I was immediately impressed by her and listened to her records frequently. Back in the 1980s I received a call from an agent by the name of Max Cavelli. He asked me if I would be interested in subbing for Barbara Carroll at the Bemelmann's Bar in the Carlisle Hotel on Monday nights. Barbara apparently wanted to take Mondays off. I took the gig and played there for 11 years. Barbara would send me a check weekly, and I got a chance to talk with her several times over the years. She is a real sweetheart, and I was grateful to her for turning me on to that gig. She remains to this day a formidable jazz great."
Jay Leonhart: "Ah, I remember it well. Sort of …
"The first time I remember working with Barbara Carroll was in 1974, the year my son was born. In fact, I was performing with Barbara at The Cookery on University Place (now the site of yet another much-needed pharmacy) on the very night my son [trumpeter/pianist Michael] was born. I informed Barbara that I needed to get to the hospital to be with my wife. She sent me flying to New York University Hospital.
"That same son will soon be thirty-five, and Barbara and I now revel in our grandchildren. We have become the very best of friends over the years.
"It's so easy for me to sing the praises of this remarkable woman. We all celebrated her 80th birthday a few years back, and we watch as she continues to relentlessly grow as a pianist and an artist. I perform with her almost every Sunday afternoon at The Algonquin, and she's always coming up with surprises and new songs to play. Her improvisations on these songs are stunning. And she continues to swing her [tail] off—probably more than ever. She has an almost encyclopedic memory for the words and music of every song she's ever heard. I once sat down with Barbara and paged through a fake book and mentioned songs. She seemed to know the music and lyrics to every song in the book and to have a personal story about every great composer in there, except for Stephen Foster (she claims her nanny's grandmother was the Stephen Foster expert).
"I watch how Barbara deals with audiences, and the distractions and interruptions that invariably occur, even in these high class saloons (to quote her pal, Bobby Short). I can brag that I have worked with many of the greatest performers of the last fifty years, but I swear that nobody handles an audience like Barbara—so effortlessly and graciously. She could have performed on the Titanic and pulled it off. 'I'll do the last couple songs in lifeboat three. We'll wait for you.' She would have made it work. Unflappable!
"Barbara Carroll is my pal. She is a lovely and generous woman. She is also a national treasure and one of our finest interpreters of the great American song, and I get to see and hear her almost every week.
"As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, "Getting to know you, getting to know what to play!"
Barbara Carroll on Jay Leonhart: [The following was written by Barbara and read by Jack Kleinsinger at his Highlights In Jazz salute to Jay in December. She had re-injured her foot and could not be there. Herewith is a slightly edited version of her letter.]
"It was 1974 and Jay and I opened at the Cookery on University Place [the Greenwich Village club was booked by Barney Josephson of Café Society fame]. After the first set, Jay came to me and said, 'I'm so sorry but I have to leave; Donna [Jay's wife] is in the hospital giving birth.' It was an auspicious opening night, but that was the start of my musical relationship with Jay.
"We have performed together so many times through the years. For me, it's always been the greatest joy to play music with Jay. As a bassist he provides that wonderful velvet cushion for a soloist. His bass solos are always creative and surprising and swinging, as is anything he does.
"His songwriting is unique and so is his singing. And, oh yes, he is a bon vivant unparalleled. I use Stephen Sondheim's words to say, 'Here's to Jay. Who's like Jay? Damn few!'"