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Carmen McRae: The Great American Songbook

Carmen McRae has been referred to by the jazz cognoscenti as "The Singer's Singer" because she was precisely that! Even jazz and standard-pop greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan couldn't phrase and read a song the way Carmen could. She wasn't blessed with the vocal mechanics of those just mentioned, but she had a friend and mentor in Billie Holiday, who could interpret a great song better than its composer wrote it. Frank Sinatra commented more than once that he learned a lot about phrasing from Holiday. Carmen, too, listened to Billie, and learned.

Carmen also served quite an apprenticeship before becoming a great song stylist; her Jamaican-born parents stocked their home with the recordings of many jazz greats, and started their daughter on piano lessons at an early age.

While in her late teens and early 20s, Carmen landed a job playing piano during intermissions at the famed Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where she met many of the up-and-coming jazz greats 0 one of them was her husband-to-be, drummer Kenny Clarke. Later came stints in the bands of Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Mercer Ellington.

Carmen went on to international fame, appearing in clubs and concert halls around the world, and recording some 60 albums for at least a half-dozen record labels, in a career that spanned half a century.

Her stage-presence, finely chiseled features, and what she could do with a song, became her trademarks.

Carmen refused to stop smoking, even though she suffered from emphysema. She collapsed one night on stage, and never recovered enough to perform again. She passed away in 1994, two years after falling ill. She was 74.

If you'd like one of Carmen's best, try Carmen McRae: The Great American Songbook, on the Atlantic label. It's a doozy.--BP

Also known as "BP with the GM," (translation: "Bob Perkins with the Good Music"), Mr. Perkins has been in the broadcasting industry for more than five decades as an on-air host, and is now commonly referred to as a Philadelphia jazz radio legend.