She Never Went Away
Carol Sloane hasn't achieved jazz icon status, but devoted fans have
been following her for half a century
by Louise Kennedy Boston Globe, February 13, 2004
In the tiny stage of the most famous basement in New York, a dynamic woman in a fuchsia blouse sits perched on a stool. Sometimes, as one of her fellow musicians takes off on a solo, her eyes close, her head nods gently to the beat, and her lips purse in an appreciative smile. Sometimes she shifts to the side so the audience can get a better view. Sometimes -- the best times -- she sings. And when Carol Sloane sings at the Village Vanguard, as she did last month, it's like hearing the concentrated essence of a half-century's worth of jazz in one night. You know why? Because that's what it is.
This is a woman, after all, who can introduce one song -- "I Never Had a Chance" -- by saying simply, "I learned this from Ella." (She proves it, too, with a bell-clear emotional truth that is at once all Fitzgerald and pure Sloane.) She can sing "Prelude to a Kiss" with a deeply refined simplicity that makes you understand why, the first time Miles Davis heard her sing it, he told her, "You should record that." (She did.) And she can thank her audience, as she does on this bitterly cold night, for being with her at the Vanguard more than four decades after she first appeared here.
"You realize you are a dream come true?" she says, in a voice as warm and engaging in speech as it is in song. "In 1961, I made my nightclub debut here, opening for Oscar Peterson. I thought, 'Maybe someday I'll sing here, and it'll be full of people.' And here you are."
Here we are, and here she is. But where has she been?
The title of her 2001 album, "I Never Went Away," is one answer to that question, and of course it's true. Carol Sloane never went away from the music she loves, and a core group of devoted fans -- many of them in Europe and Japan -- never went away from her. But the tide of popular taste surely shifted in the years just after Sloane's spectacular arrival on the scene at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival, and when it did, she found herself in many interesting places, but none that you'd call the mainstream.
So here we have a woman who has made more than 40 records -- the latest, "Whisper Sweet," is just out from HighNote -- and has received uniformly glowing praise from critics and fans. "Carol Sloane has never made a bad record," one declared. "I honestly think you are the best girl singer alive," said another -- Robert B. Parker, better known as the author of the Spenser mystery novels, three of which feature cameo appearances by Sloane.
We have a woman who worked with Oscar and Benny, who was friends with Ella and Carmen, who met Duke and Miles and so many more. And yet, unlike Peterson and Goodman, Fitzgerald and McRae, Ellington and Davis, Sloane never got onto a first-name basis with the radio- listening, record-buying masses. People who know and love jazz know and love her work. But she never became a pop-culture icon of jazz.
And, basically, that's fine with her.
"It used to drive me crazy," Sloane says, "but I don't think about it anymore. Looking back, I feel very happy that I am where I am."
Where she is now, for a wide-ranging conversation on a blustery February afternoon, is in the Stoneham condo she shares with her husband, producer and entertainment consultant Buck Spurr. This was Spurr's place first, she says, but when they married in 1986, "I took it over." She had bookcases installed up to the ceiling to hold her many books, the sheer variety and number of which speak to the range and depth of her passions. There are jazz books, history books, plenty of mysteries, P. G. Wodehouse and Anne Lamott, Carol Shields and the writer Sloane calls her favorite, E. B. White. These are not the shelves of someone who knows only music.
"Music is not an obsession," she says. "There are other things that make life fascinating. Buck -- he's on a roll, he's got things to do; I've got friends; I've got my cooking. Life -- it's not just music. It is wonderful to have people you care about."
Spurr, whom Sloane met when he was booking Boston's old Starlight Roof club, is clearly very high on that list. So are Sloane's niece Carol and her young children. Sloane never had children of her own, so baby-sitting this bunch gives her a chance, she says, to nibble toes and read stories.
It's a comfortable-sounding life that you might picture for many women of Sloane's generation. Born in 1937, she grew up outside Providence, in a large, loving family that she speaks of with affection and delight. But she's also had a fascinating life in a larger world -- and that was the world, she says, that she always longed for, even as a happy Catholic schoolgirl in Rhode Island.
"There was a lot of jazz in those days," Sloane says, "jazz on the radio!" She would listen to a live performance from Birdland, and when she'd hear the clink of ice on glass, she'd imagine herself there, among the cocktails and the cool cats who swirled them. She'd go into the local record store, and the owner would say, "You ever listen to Billie Holiday?"
She'd say no, "so he'd say, 'Go in this booth and listen,' and I'd go in and listen to this 98-cent piece of shellac that I'd more often than not take home."
She got her first paying job in 1954, through a sax-playing uncle who was the only other musical member of the family. The $18 she made each week for singing on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- with Uncle Joe shepherding her home afterward -- went straight to that shellac habit.
She laughs now to remember herself imitating the singers she heard -- Kay Starr! -- but she was developing her own voice, too, and her own approach to songs. Because of "the exuberance of knowing you can do it," she says, she fell into a trap she warns many young singers to keep out of: doing too much to a song.
"I thought I had to do a lot of mangling of the melody," she says, to make it jazz. But something much simpler got her noticed in Newport in '61, where she got her first big break after working around Rhode Island for a few years: Because the accompanist didn't know the verse to "Little Girl Blue," she sang it a cappella -- and got raves.
That led to another big break the same year: a first record on Columbia, "Out of the Blue." Next thing she knew, she was opening for Peterson at the Vanguard. But there was that trap again.
"I was in a jazz room, so here I was, singing 'My Ship' in a very destructive way," she says. "Well, here's Oscar Peterson": She morphs instantly into a doleful older musician, chin in hand, basset-hound eyes gazing balefully at this scat-singing pup who's wrecking a Kurt Weill classic. "He does that to me every night. He'd say, 'Sing "My Ship," ' and then I'd just get the look." The basset again. "Finally, I sang it." She sings the first few words -- "My ship has sails" -- in a low, haunting, pure voice. "Just sang it." She smiles, recalling how Peterson smiled, finally, too. "He never said a word to me -- never said a word. But what a lesson!"
That's only one of Sloane's Oscar Peterson stories; he was a great joker, and she laughs as she recounts his antics. "I never forget those days. They were too much fun."
Some of the days that followed, however, were considerably less fun. With the advent of rock, jazz became even more of a niche market than it had always been, and the pure classicism of Sloane's style was a niche within a niche. Instead of the bright future her first reviewers had prophesied, she found herself working as a legal secretary in North Carolina. Instead of making records, she was reviewing them for Down Beat magazine. A stormy relationship with the piano player Jimmy Rowles didn't help -- though it was the path to her friendship with Ella Fitzgerald, when Rowles took over from Fitzgerald's longtime pianist, Tommy Flanagan.
Sloane would rather focus on the stories: traveling around Europe with Fitzgerald's band; playing the Vanguard for seven weeks, because of the newspaper strike, with an increasingly out-of-it Lenny Bruce; working a gig in Philadelphia with George Carlin, with about four people in the room the first night. The next night, though, about 40 people came in at once -- led by Bill Cosby, who "knew of George, and also knew we were dying. That was generous. He's never stopped being generous."
Neither has she. At the Vanguard last month, she spent more time promoting the CD of her piano player, Patti Wicks, than her own; asked what she has on her CD player these days, she speaks glowingly of a forthcoming Leonard Bernstein disc by her friend the piano player Bill Charlap -- then insists on playing a cut.
And she's right: It's "brilliant. Brilliant!" Her enthusiasm reminds you that what she always loved about Ella and Oscar and the rest was not their fame; it was their music, and themselves. Never is that clearer than when she's remembering her dear friend and musical role model Carmen McRae.
Sloane can tell you stories about McRae's imperiousness and temper -- the time she chewed Sloane out for forgetting to fill an ice tray, then stopped speaking to her for months, or the time that Sloane, touring in Japan, got Ernestine Anderson to join her in calling McRae in Washington, D.C., to sing "Happy Birthday." They thought it was 6 p.m. there. Cursing, McRae informed them, "It's 6 o'clock in the morning." Sloane's voice effortlessly shifts into McRae's famous growl as she repeats the line, then laughs.
"It took me six months to get past that one," she says.
But she did, and her admiration of McRae's singing remains undimmed. "When I heard Carmen the first time -- the beautiful voice of Ella, and then the texture of her own voice. Like sand, a little steely," she says, appreciatively. "I want to hear some grit. I'm not awful fond of pretty. Who wants to eat a boiled egg without salt and pepper?"
Sloane's own singing remains perfectly seasoned: warm and tender, deeply connected to both meaning and melody, simple and direct without ever seeming bland. It's hard to believe that she had to make a living as a secretary, not a singer, a reality that she delves into in the memoir she's writing, the tale of "how I got into this silly business and how I ended up staying in it."
She did stay in it. And in recent years, she's been getting renewed attention. "She's coming into the light," says Fred Taylor, who has booked her for two nights of love songs at Scullers this weekend.
"She is a classic," says Ron Della Chiesa, who so admired the intimate glow of Sloane's voice that he regularly had her fill in as host on "Music America," his former WGBH radio show focusing on what's known as the "great American songbook": Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, et al.
"The American songbook is really American lieder. It's our Schubert, our Puccini," Della Chiesa says. "She's a Puccini singer. She could sing really pianissimo and yet be heard across the room."
Indeed, Sloane says, she doesn't listen to many singers now -- and when she does, they're usually opera singers. "Because it's just beautiful singing," she says.
To her, beautiful singing is simple singing. "Give me the song," she tells students when she teaches -- just give it, without a lot of tricky embellishment. To clarify, she turns to a metaphor from the cooking she loves to do.
"It's like an artichoke," she says. "You have to peel those layers, and it's a lot of work. But when you're down there, it's really worth it."
She smiles again. "I think, after 50 years, I've got down to the heart of the artichoke."