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Carol Sloane, a jazz singer of impeccable taste, is dead at 85

CAROL SLOANE
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Con
/
Disney General Entertainment Con
Carol Sloane in an appearance on ABC's 'The New Steve Allen Show,' on Nov. 8, 1961.

Carol Sloane, a jazz singer whose smoky tone, unerring taste and judicious instinct secured her stature as a choice songbook interpreter even in the long stretches when broader recognition eluded her, died on Monday at a senior care center in Stoneham, MA. She was 85.

The cause was complications from a stroke, her niece, Carol Bates, tells WRTI.

Sloane had a career equally touched by good fortune and bad timing. She emerged at the tail end of the big band era, and had started to build brisk momentum — releasing two albums on Columbia, making frequent appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show — when rock ‘n’ roll upended the market for popular music. “Had Carol been born five years earlier,” critic Marc Myers has asserted, “she surely would be as well known today as Carmen McRae, Chris Connor and other headline singers who emerged during the rock-free early 1950s.”

She sang in an alto whose texture and register drew comparisons to Sarah Vaughan. But Sloane was a less digressive stylist, preferring to trace the line of a song’s melody more or less to the letter — an approach that made her subtle variations of phrase and inflection seem all the more striking. Her core influences were Ella Fitzgerald, an early lodestar; and McRae, who served as a mentor, and later the focus of a 1995 album for Concord, The Songs Carmen Sang.

“She had no pretensions,” says WRTI’s Bob Craig, who welcomed Sloane on his program Voices in Jazz twice, in 2010 and 2015. “She always incorporated these very subtle motivic elements. She had this mellow flow with a melody, and her choice of songs was always extremely tasteful.” (Craig will devote an hour of this Sunday’s show to Sloane, drawing from their conversations and playing her music.)

Born Carol Morvan on March 5, 1937 in Providence, RI, Sloane grew up in nearby Smithfield. She was the younger of two daughters; her parents, Frank and Claudia Morvan, worked at a textile mill during the war, and encouraged their children's musical interests. Young Carol grew up loving jazz on records and on the radio, but she began singing in a church choir. At 14, she landed her first professional engagement with Ed Drew, whose society band played dances two nights a week at the Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet ballroom in Cranston, RI.

At 18, she married a local disc jockey, Charlie Jefferds, who was soon drafted into the Army. She followed him to Colorado for basic training, and then to Germany, where he was stationed for a year. When they returned stateside, they divorced, and she began to pursue a career as a singer, starting out in small clubs in New England — which is how she caught the ear of a representative for the Les and Larry Elgart Orchestra.

Larry Elgart, an alto saxophonist, split off from his brother shortly afterward; his album Easy Goin’ Swing, released on RCA in 1960, features one of the only credits for Carol Morvan, before he insisted that she adopt a stage name. In a 2009 interview with Myers, she said she couldn’t recall who came up with “Sloane,” but that she was the one who insisted on the silent “e” at the end; the day after coming up with the idea, she legally changed her name.

Sloane left the Larry Elgart Orchestra after two years of touring, and began working as a solo act. In 1960, Jon Hendricks saw her perform at a jazz festival in Pittsburgh; duly impressed, he asked her to fill in for Annie Ross in his crackerjack vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, on a gig at Pep’s Lounge in Philadelphia. Sloane continued to sub for Ross periodically over the next couple of years, and the added visibility led to other opportunities, like a slot opening for pianist Oscar Peterson at The Village Vanguard.

This was the backdrop for Sloane’s appearance on the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival (the only edition of the fest produced by Sid Bernstein, rather than George Wein). “She had been presented on a Saturday afternoon in a grab-bag program of ‘new talent’ that attracted a skimpy audience of 300,” wrote John S. Wilson in The New York Times later that year. “But her performance aroused so much excitement, particularly backstage among the musicians and the jazz reporters, that a place was found for her on the final evening program when she repeated her success before an audience of thousands.”

It was an unmistakable triumph that helped propel Sloane through the transitional years of the mid-’60s, when she socialized with both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones during their first incursions on American shores. Work began to dry up; to make ends meet, she took temp and secretarial jobs, and even became a freelance contributor to DownBeat, writing about other singers’ records. By the end of the decade, she’d left New York, moving to Raleigh, N.C.

Carol Sloane
courtesy of the artist

There she found another scene, singing at The Frog and Nightgown and hosting a jazz show on North Carolina Public Radio. She relocated to Boston in the mid-1980s, subbing on the air at WGBH and meeting her next husband, Buck Spurr. Two of his children — her stepdaughter, Sandra de Novellis, and stepson, David Burr — survive her along with Carol Bates and a nephew, James Souza. Sloane’s sister, Lois Souza, predeceased her in 2020.

Sloane, who once felt compelled to name an album I Never Went Away, enjoyed a career resurgence during her later years; in 2002, she appeared on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. But she hadn’t released an album in almost a decade when she decided to record one at Birdland in 2019, with a band featuring saxophonist Scott Hamilton, pianist Mike Renzi and bassist Jay Leonhart. Her trepidation about the engagement can be seen in a new trailer for Sloane: A Jazz Singer, a film by Michael Lippert, currently in production.

By all accounts, Sloane’s stand at Birdland was a smashing success. The veteran saxophonist and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg, writing about it on social media at the time, enthused that “a spell was cast from the moment she walked to the stage to the moment that she left it, after two standing ovations.”

“The great majority of the time,” Schoenberg went on, “Sloane stayed deliciously close to the melody, but with the kind of personal alterations that stamped each interpretation as hers alone, the same art that Bobby Hackett, and Ben Webster practiced with their melodic paraphrases.”

Sloane was scheduled to return to Birdland in March 2020, but those plans were derailed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Later that year, she had her stroke, which left her in a rehabilitation center.

Live at Birdland was released last year, and well received despite a touch of bittersweetness. Sloane was no longer performing, and Renzi had died in 2021, at 80. But to hear the album even now is to reckon with the sound of a singer in majestic form, and reveling in it. “I’m certainly in my prime,” Sloane sings in the opening track, a standard called “Having Myself a Time.” Its opening stanza reads as follows:

I'm having myself a time
I mean I’m having what I want
Wanting what I have
Doing what I like
And liking what I do
And I'm having myself a time

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.