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Remembering Barbara Carroll, The 'First Lady Of Jazz Piano'


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist and vocalist Barbara Carroll died Sunday at age 92 after a career that spanned seven decades. She began recording in the late 1940s, when a female jazz musician was still considered quite a novelty, and continued to record until her latest CD, "Barbara Carroll Plays Birdland," was released last December. Here she is playing a Thelonious Monk tune, "In Walked Bud," from a recording in 2002.


BIANCULLI: Barbara Carroll also sang. For 24 years, she played and sang at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, the hotel that also was home for decades to fellow jazz pianist and singer Bobby Short. On most of Carroll's recordings, she sings on a few tracks. Here's one example, the Gershwin standard "Isn't It A Pity?".


BARBARA CARROLL: (Singing) Why did I wander here and there and yonder, wasting precious time for no reason or rhyme? Isn't it a pity? Isn't it a crime? My journey's ended. Everything is splendid. Seeing you today has given me a wonderful idea. And here I'll stay. It's a funny thing. I look at you. I get a thrill I never knew. Isn't it a pity we never met before?

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Barbara Carroll in 2003, the same year she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center's Women in Jazz Festival.



You started performing at a time when there were very few women jazz musicians, or at least successful ones. How did you feel about always being referred to as, like, the lady pianist? I imagine you were thought of as - almost like a novelty act because you were a woman.

CARROLL: Well, you put it very nicely. You're saying the lady pianist. Actually, what people would say when they were giving you the ultimate compliment was - gee, you play good for a girl - or, worse still - you play just like a man - you know. So when I was growing up, those were the accolades that one got.

GROSS: Now, you sing as well as play piano. But on your records, you usually just sing a few tracks on each recording. Were you ever afraid, particularly when you were getting started, that if you sang too much you would be thought of as a singer and not so much as a pianist and it would take away from your reputation as an instrumentalist? You'd be, you know, regarded as, like, another girl singer.

CARROLL: Well, actually, I must confess, Terry, it wasn't that. It was afraid - I was afraid to sing, not because they'd think that I was a singer because they'd think I wasn't a singer.


CARROLL: And I always knew a lot of lyrics. I knew the lyrics to everything that I played. But I was always afraid to sing because I didn't think I had the voice. I didn't think I had the range. There - you know, I was totally insecure about it. And today I don't think of myself as a singer either. I think of myself as a pianist who sings. And I have come to the conclusion that the important thing when you're singing is to tell the story. And I consoled myself with that, you see.


CARROLL: I'm telling the story. And I love to sing. But essentially, my first love is playing the piano.

GROSS: You were trained as a pianist. You studied piano from the time you were a girl. You went to the New England Conservatory of Music. Did you, in that sense, think of your singing and your piano playing as mismatched because you were so untrained as a singer?

CARROLL: No. You see, I began playing the piano when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I had two older sisters who had been given piano lessons and violin lessons and all kinds of lessons. But they didn't want to practice, and they weren't really interested in playing. And I was about 10 years younger than my middle sister - I was the youngest in the family. And by the time I came along, my parents were rather disenchanted with the idea of going for all that money for the piano lessons again because, you know, they had had bad experiences with my two sisters.

So I was playing when I was 5 and 6, and I really wanted to study. And I finally prevailed upon them to let me study classical music, which I began studying when I was 8 years old. I studied classical music until I was about 15 in Worcester and then, as I say, I went to the conservatory for a little bit. I didn't feel - your question was, did I feel a mismatched because I had had formal training in playing the piano and I had not in singing? No. In jazz, actually, I don't know that you have to have formal training in singing. I'm sure it might help. But I'm sure that many of the great jazz singers did not have that formal training. And...

GROSS: I think most did not.

CARROLL: Now, I would say that. Yes, absolutely. And as far as formal training in playing the piano, I certainly think it's helpful in giving you the ability, the technique - the technical ability to play the piano and play whatever you want because if you have the technique, you can go ahead and play jazz or play whatever you - you know, whatever comes to mind.

GROSS: How were you first exposed to jazz?

CARROLL: Well, when I was in Worcester, I used to hear the radio - listen to the radio a lot. And there were live - you know, in those days, there were remote broadcasts - that's what they called them - which meant they were live performances from jazz rooms, from hotels, from places where there were bands and there were instrumentalists playing wonderful jazz music. And that's what I heard when I was in Worcester.

And then I heard Nat King Cole and his trio, and that was as if a light went on for me because Nat Cole was my very first favorite pianist. He was a marvelous pianist. A lot of people remember him as a great singer, which, of course, he was. But for me, he was the excitement about playing jazz piano. And then after that, I heard Art Tatum and - oh, later on, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, etc., etc. But it was Nat Cole first.

GROSS: A question about clothing for you - on your latest recording, "One Morning In May," you're wearing a black turtleneck sweater and you're seated at the piano. On your recordings from the 1950s, or at least the couple that I have with me, you're more like, you know, a cocktail dress or an evening gown, something with straps that, you know (laughter) - with bare shoulders, you know, that.

So what was expected of you in terms of your image in the 1950s, when you were one of the few women pianists recording?

CARROLL: Exactly what you said - bare shoulders, cocktail dress, you know, a little cleavage if you were fortunate enough to have it.


CARROLL: And that's the way it was. You know, I look at old photographs of myself, professional photographs that were taken during that time...

GROSS: Yeah.

CARROLL: ...In the 1950s. And they were all very sultry and glamorous. There were photographers at that time, like Maurice Seymour and James Kriegsmann and Bruno of Hollywood, and they took these marvelous pictures with lighting and shadows and, you know, just made you look terrific. And it was all glamour, and it was wonderful. Things have changed, though. You know, I don't dress that way now. I don't wear things that are bare shoulders and cut out. I'm more casual in keeping, I think, with the spirit of the times.

GROSS: And speaking of the glamour photos - on your album "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye," which is from the 1950s, you're at the piano wearing this, you know, cocktail dress with straps with the cleavage and the bare shoulders.


GROSS: And there's three men in suits with their elbows on the piano, listening intently and staring at you admiringly.


CARROLL: Well, I'm glad you said staring at me admiringly. Actually what happened was that they needed a cover photograph. And somebody at RCA Victor got the great idea - you know, let's get a couple of guys standing around the piano looking at Barbara while she's playing. So they called in some of the fellows who were in the corridor there, and they said...


CARROLL: And they said, would you fellas please come in and look at Barbara admiringly?


CARROLL: That's what happened (laughter).

GROSS: That's really funny. How did you feel about the cover - about the album photo?

CARROLL: I wasn't crazy about it (laughter).


CARROLL: But (laughter) - because I always remembered the circumstances under which it happened, you know. But that was the idea. Whether that feeling came through - whether that translated on the cover, I'm not sure. They were supposed to be overwhelmed with what I was playing. I'm not sure that that was the expression that they had.

GROSS: Well Barbara Carroll, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CARROLL: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Barbara Carroll speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. The jazz pianist and singer died Sunday at age 92. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Matt Damon movie, "The Great Wall." This is FRESH AIR.


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