Carmen McRae and the Triumph of the Lyric


by David Edward Sims

Although very few jazz aficionados would decry Carmen McRae’s exalted place in jazz, not so many are ready to grant her first-rung status, shoulder-to-shoulder with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. But I certainly do, and in fact, if pressed, I might even confess that as much as I love and admire each, I actually love Carmen a little bit more. I’m going to expand the number of most exalted ones to five, with Carmen and Lena Horne making up the balance.

Even though her vocal style, in my opinion, doesn’t really follow that of Billie Holiday all that literally, Holiday was McRae’s idol, and like Anita O’Day, another Holiday disciple, McRae was a singer who pretty much stayed within the jazz genre, wandering into pop territory only for brief but interesting periods (like her albums on Atlantic Records — check out the 1967 “For Once In My Life”). She loved jazz, as it gave her the freedom to express herself in any way, at any moment, she pleased, and she was deeply enamored and proud of the jazz tradition.

I would venture that Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughan, in the perfection of their vocal personalities, sang for you in the most advanced, exquisite way. McRae and Horne, on the other hand, sang to you, engaging you directly in dialogue with composer, lyricist, and singer herself. You hear this “direct address” in audio recordings and in the live performances captured on video presented on YouTube.

Carmen McRae’s singing style was born of her love for the lyric. In interviews, when asked what criteria she used to decide on songs to perform, she would reply that the lyric had to mean something to her, and if it didn’t, it didn’t really matter how lovely the melody might be. More than Holiday, Fitzgerald, and Vaughan, but not more than Horne, McRae was an actress when she sang, always becoming the protagonist of the song (in Horne’s case, the protagonist of the song becoming her), presenting the lyric as personal statement. Songs became soliloquies, testimonies. Holiday, it must be admitted, did this too (and this may be the true link between the two singers), though Holiday’s persona was so completely distinctive and all-encompassing, this aspect of her performance can be difficult to isolate from her highly layered total listening experience.

One thing both Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae shared was a highly individual sense for humor. Vaughan’s was effervescent and spontaneous, at times even goofy and giggly. Hers was a humor that became all the more delightfully silly contrasted with the depth of her interpretations, her often operatic intensity, and her rich, singular tone. McRae’s humor, on the other hand, was more calculated, more sly — like musical comedy, or even standup. She knew where the joke was going, and was more than happy to set you up. She delivered Lorenz Hart’s “I Wish I Were In Love Again” lyrics, for example, with perfect emphasis on the key words and a delivery that ensured the listener received every nuance of every one-liner line. (A note: McRae’s affection for Vaughan is amply demonstrated in her 1991 album tribute “Sarah: Dedicated To You” with the Shirley Horn Trio.)

Like McRae, Lena Horne was also a lyric-based singer, although Horne tended to be far more preoccupied with her persona when she sang than McRae. Both delivered lines with precision and crisp diction, and both could shift from a ladylike stance for a Noel Coward or Billy Strayhorn tune, to a looser one for less dignified, more playful fare. McRae’s predisposition to jazz brought her closer to influences like Nat King Cole and Thelonious Monk, while Horne’s background as a band singer, musical theater artist and headliner with an instinct for glamor brought more “show biz” to her presentation.

It’s difficult to make corollaries between Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald. Compared to Vaughan, Holiday and Horne, the connections are harder to see. Perhaps the great link between Fitzgerald and McRae is that they were both live performers of the highest order. Fitzgerald had a remarkably adventurous spirit in live performance. She was a kind of musical “bungee jumper” — improvising often in direct dialogue with her supporting musicians with complete abandon and total faith in the moment, simultaneously lifting her audiences to a state of true jazz euphoria (she was the “First Lady of Song,” after all). McRae’s approach to live performance was, once again, centered on the lyric, taking inspiration for interpretation as it came to her, driving a line home with extra emphasis if it felt right.

Over time, McRae’s style became increasingly direct, eventually bordering on the conversational, although her well-honed musical sensibilities were hers to the end (check out her 1980  album “Two For The Road” with George Shearing). I saw Carmen McRae once in person, in an afternoon set at the 1981 Chicago Jazz Festival. The bandshell was packed, and in-between songs, the legend chatted with us all as if we were all old friends gathered around the kitchen table for coffee. Always and ever, for her it was all about communicating.


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