Carmen McRae is one of the twentieth century's greatest jazz vocalists. Known for her hoarse, smoky voice, she played a major role in the emergence of the bop style.
Carmen McRae was born to a Jamaican mother and a Costa Rican father in Harlem, New York, in 1920. She started learning the piano at the age of 8. As a teenager, she loved popular songs, which she continued to sing her whole life. When she was 17, she met the composer Irene Kitchings, who introduced her to Billie Holliday. Carmen McRae and Billie Holliday became friends and Carmen saw Billie as her main source of inspiration. She began her career as a solo vocalist in the early 1940s. She built a reputation as a singer and pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, Harlem's best-known jazz club. The timbre of her voice and her talent as a musician earned her a key role in the jazz world. In the mid-1940s, she was performing with the most sought-after jazz bands, including those led by Benny Carter, Count Basie and Mercer Ellington. In 1955 she signed a contract with the Decca label and her fame spread throughout the United States. She then toured Europe and Asia, playing with jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. In the 1960s, she developed an enthusiastic following in Japanese night clubs, becoming the most admired jazz vocalist in Japan.
Carmen McRae, who had grown up with New York jazz, emerged as one of the rising stars of bop jazz. A contemporary of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, she was instantly recognisable for her laid-back, drawn-out "smoker's" voice. She had a rhythmic ease and a predilection for scat improvisations and vocal inflections. In the course of her career, she performed at numerous festivals and jazz clubs with her own trio or alongside accordionist Mat Mathews or clarinettist Tony Scott. She died in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County in 1994 as the result of a pulmonary illness. She is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the twentieth century.
Six landmark dates in the life of Carmen McRae:
1938: Carmen met Billie Holliday
1939: Recorded her first title, Dream of life
1944: Joined Benny Carter's band
1954: Elected best female singer by the magazine Down Beat
1955: Signed with Decca
1993: Obtained an award from the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
Six key recordings by Carmen McRae:
1957: Mad About The Man
1963: You're Lookin' at Me (A Collection of Nat King Cole Songs)
1983: For Lady Day
1988: The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Great American Music Hall, with Betty Carter)
1990: Carmen sings Monk
1991: Sarah: Dedicated to You (tribute to her friend Sarah Vaughan)
Biography compiled from Radio France documentation, October 2016