J29: Barbara Carroll on June in Worcester

In his monumental memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand: Fifty Years of Music, from Honky-tonk to High Society, author Don Asher dedicates all of Chapter One to his first encounter with the legendary Worcester-born pianist, Jaki Byard. In Chapter Two he turns his attention to yet another great local pianist, Barbara Carroll.

Here’s his riff: “My days at Martha Cantor’s North Main Street studio were numbered. I didn’t tell her I was simultaneously studying elsewhere. But she had detected something course and alien infiltrating the texture of my playing, and she was puzzled. ‘Your legato lines are losing definition and clarity, Donald, and I can’t seem to put my finger on the difficulty.’

“Concurrently Barbara Carroll (nee Coppersmith) was getting herself seduced, drawn down the same sordid, enchanting alleys. She had made her pilgrimage to Dominic’s Café, which was becoming a Mecca for southern New England piano players. (Hearing Jackie [sic, Jaki Byard] in that environment was like encountering Horowitz on a drink-stained spinet in a back-road motel cocktail lounge.)

“I would see her near the front of the line at the Plymouth Theater on Sunday afternoons and in the tiny cubicles at Carl Seder’s Music Mart listening to King Cole and Teddy Wilson records, head bent, eyes closed. Then suddenly she had deserted Martha Cantor and was playing three and four nights a week in the eastside Worcester dives and turnpike roadhouses strung halfway to Boston like dingy boxcars on a coal-littered siding.

“Within a few weeks I followed suit, divulging to Martha the Dominic’s-Byard-Saxtrum connection. She was devastated. Two of her prize pupils jumping ship in the space of a month to vanish, perhaps forever, beneath the waves of vulgarity. She phoned my mother to express her dismay, sorrow, and sympathy, and my distraught tearful mom all but said Kaddish over my watery grave.”

Carroll was born in Worcester. The date was January 25, 1925. That makes her 83 years young. These days she lives in Manhattan where she has resided since leaving New England more than 50 years ago. Still active, she holds court on Sunday afternoons at the Oak Room in the Algonguin Hotel. Her bassist is Frank Tate, who had assisted the late Bobby Short.

In reviewing the gig, Stephen Holden of the New York Times opened by quoting a lyric: “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few.” He then writes: “When Barbara Carroll talk-sings those words from Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Old Friends’ in a sly, confiding tone, she is lifting a toast to the kind of friendship that lasts a lifetime.”

Holden, who is clearly a fan of Carroll, owing to his many positive reviews of her work over the years, continues: “The song, which makes sense only when performed by someone over 40, has become a late-career signature for Ms. Carroll, now 82. In recent years she has emerged as an entertainer comparable in polish and elegance to her friend Bobby Short, who worked at Cafe Carlye, across the hall from Belemans Bar, her home base for 25 years.”

In January, Carroll was forced to take a little time off. “About a month ago she had an unfortunate accident,” reports her longtime agent, Irvin Arthur. “She was getting into a cab and the cab didn’t see her and pulled out. She fell and broke her hip and ankle. She had to go to the hospital. She had operations on her hip and ankle.”

Being the old school warrior that she is, Carroll received rehab at home and returned to work on February 3. Although she was a little under the weather with a cold, she took time out to chat about her early days.

Carroll grew up at 41 June Street where she began playing the piano at age five. She is the youngest of three daughters. Her parents were David and Lilian (Levine) Coppersmith. By the way, a cousin is bassist Mike Palter, who is one half of the duo with his wife pianist/singer Lynne Jackson.

“My two older sisters had been given piano lessons and violin lessons and all kinds of music lessons. Nothing happened,” Carroll recalls. They were not interested and they didn’t practice. So, my parents were rather unhappy, disenchanted with the whole idea of music lessons.

“I came along and I really wanted to play, but at that time things were tough, money was tight and I was really discouraged to take lessons. I persisted. I really showed them that I was serious. So, they started getting me piano lessons. I was about eight years old when I began studying classical piano.

As Asher mentioned, Carroll studied with Martha Cantor, who was long considered to be the foremost classical piano teacher of the area. She was the sister of theatrical impresario, Arthur Cantor.

“Yes, Martha Cantor was one of my teachers,” Carroll says. “I think I went to her home. I studied with her for a while. Then I studied in Boston with private teachers. Then I went to the New England Conservatory of Music.”

In a radio interview with Terri Gross on “Fresh Air,” heard on NPR, Carroll talked about technique.

“As far as formal training in playing the piano,” she said, “I certainly think it is helpful in giving you the technical ability to play the piano and play whatever you want. If you have the technique you can go ahead and play whatever comes to mind.”

Carroll also told Gross that she used to play things that she heard on the radio and “try to compose little things. I was very interested in playing.”

Of those she heard on the radio, Carroll singles out Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole — “All the people who became my idols. That’s when I became very interested in jazz. I don’t recall seeing any of them in Worcester at the time. I was very young. I was mostly listening to the records. That’s all it was, except classical music, which is what I was studying. I didn’t study jazz. Jaki Byard was around and wonderful.”

While still a teenager Carroll began working around town. “We had a little group in high school,” she says. “We used to play Bar Mitzvahs, wedding and things like that. It was usually three or four pieces… clarinet, drums – not the greatest instrumental assortment, but we worked with what we had. We played some jazz. It was all head arrangements. You couldn’t classify it as arrangements. It was just getting together and playing tunes.”

In an interview with Marian McPartland during her spotlight on “Piano Jazz,” Carroll talked about her transformation from classical to jazz, saying, “It wasn’t anything that I sat down and formulated and analyzed. It was something that I innately knew I wanted to do. There was never any question in my mind. Because I was young and innocent, I suppose, and very naive, it never occurred to me that it might be very difficult for me to do these things. Number one, because it was difficult to play jazz anyway. It wasn’t a stable kind of living. Secondly, because I was a female. That was relatively unheard of in those days.”

After graduating from high school Carroll moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, earning tuition money gigging around town. “There was a man name Sam Sax who was giving a course in jazz,” she says. “I took that for a little while. My stay at the conservatory was rather brief because I wanted to go to New York. I went to school for awhile and began playing in various clubs around Boston, at the Mayfair and the Latin Quarter. In those days they had a house band and what they called a relief band, which was a rumba band. And lucky me,” she says sarcastically. “I played with the rumba band. I learned a lot of rumbas that way.”

Carroll says she worked with band-leader Ruby Newman, who was instrumental in her making connections in Boston. “He was a society band leader, who got me my union card, which was very nice. It allowed me to work.”

In a great piece by Sue Terry in the New York’s musician’s local 802 newsletter, Terry notes that Carroll eventually left school to pursue music full time. “In those days you worked real late, ’til 2 or 3 in the morning,” the pianist said. “It was hard to get up and go to school every day.”

Terry reports: “She was accepted into the Boston AFM chapter in 1944, a necessity in order to work in area clubs. Her talents as a pianist on the Boston scene, which also included a stint with a four-piece rumba band brought her to the attention of United States military personnel. They enlisted her to do a USO tour with an all-woman trio, Eleanor Sherry and the Swinghearts.”

Carroll recalls, “The guitarist was a wonderful musician named Marion Gange, who had been with the Ina Ray Hutton band. So we had this little trio and we went to play the hospitals, playing for the boys who had been injured, who were blind, or amputees. There was a whole troupe – a juggler, musicians, singers, about 15 people – who would go right into the hospital wards and play. We would start in New York and go all the way down south and out west to the coast of California and back. We played Army, Navy and Marine bases.”

When the USO tour ended, Carroll headed to the Big Apple. “The big city beckoned me,” she says. “I got to New York City as quickly as I could.” As Terry reports, Carroll made her debut at the Downbeat Club. “I was lucky – I played opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. I had a marvelous trio, Chuck Wayne playing the guitar and Clyde Lombardi on bass. At that time, Dizzy had John Lewis playing piano, Ray Brown playing bass and James Moody on saxophone. There were two acts, Dizzy and then my trio. We were there for four weeks – and it was heaven.”

Given her extensive contributions, longevity and level of quality in output, it is fair to call Carroll the grand dame of the New York supper club and cabaret circuit. She is 1998 recipient of the MAC Award (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) for Best Major Jazz Performance (Select as a leader).

Her diverse musical career has encompassed appearing on Broadway with her trio in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet. Her extensive resume ranges from appearances in concert halls, jazz clubs, to major TV shows and festival stages throughout the world. She has also performed for President and Ms. Clinton at the White House.

In her illustrious career Carroll has recorded more than 30 albums. Her latest is Live at the Birdland featuring bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Joe Cocuzzo. Her first album was with Eddie Shu (Rainbow, 1949). A partial list of her releases includes: Piano Panorama (Atlantic); The Barbara Carroll Trio (RCA); Lullabye in Rhythm (RCA); It’s a Wonderful World (RCA); Why Not? (Sesac); Barbara Carroll (Blue Note); At the Piano (Discovery); Live at the Carlyle (DRG Cabaret) and One Morning in May (After 9).

In his book, Encyclopedia of Jazz, Leonard Feather described Carroll as the “first feminine disciple of Bud Powell bop piano school.” In her interview on “Fresh Air,” Gross asked Carroll how it felt to always be referred to as the ‘lady pianist?’ Asking, “I imagine you were thought of as almost like a novelty act, because you were a woman?”

Carroll answered by saying, “You put it very nicely. You are saying, ‘lady’ pianist. Actually what people would say when they were giving you the ultimate compliment was: ‘Gee, you play good for a girl. Or, worst still, you play just like a man.’ So when I was growing up, those were the accolades that one got.”

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