From a World War II USO tour that lasted two years to her most recent recording, “One Morning in May,” pianist Barbara Carroll has been on a lifelong musical journey.
She began improvising on the piano at the age of five, and began classical studies at age eight. “I was the youngest of three girls. My middle sister was ten years older. My parents had given my two sisters violin and piano lessons. And then I came along and started playing when I was very young, by myself.”
She earned her tuition for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston by working nights with bandleader Ruby Newman. “In those days you worked real late, till 2 or 3 in the morning. It was hard to get up and go to school every day.” Eventually she left school to pursue music full time. 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 rhumba band (“I learned a lot of rhumbas!”) 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. “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.”
Following her USO tour, she moved to New York and 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.”
The Downbeat Club was on West 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, a legendary nightclub strip that represented the heyday of bebop. Although it lasted just a few years in the late forties and early fifties, musicians who played the strip still talk about it with awe as well as nostalgia: they know they were a part of history.
“Charlie Parker was working at the Three Deuces; Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, they were all there. When I came to New York, Marian [McPartland] was here and Mary Lou Williams was in town, but there were very few female players. I remember one time on 52nd Street, standing outside the Downbeat Club, and Sarah Vaughan [whose skill as a pianist is not as well known as her singing] was there. Charlie Parker introduced us, saying, ‘I think you two chick piano players should know one another.’ Those were the days of ‘You play good for a girl’ or ‘You play like a man.’ That was the ultimate compliment.”
Another memorable engagement was playing with her own trio opposite Teddy Wilson and his trio at the Cameo Club, on East 53 Street off Lexington Avenue. Wilson had been her childhood hero, and she had hoped to study with him some day. “One night at the Cameo Club we had a drink together and I said, ‘You know, Teddy, when I was 12 years old I wrote you a letter asking if you would be my piano teacher – and I used to sit by that mailbox and wait, and you never answered me.’ And Teddy said, ‘You know, Barbara’ – and mind you, this was 12 or 14 years later – ‘I don’t remember receiving that letter!'”
Another trio featured the bassist Joe Shulman, her first husband. After his death in 1957 Barbara temporarily withdrew from the club circuit, but continued with a recording career that had been established very early on. “The first solo record came out around 1951. They reissued it with Mary Lou Williams on the other side. And then, about 1955 or so, I started recording with RCA.” Other labels for which she has recorded include Discovery, Atlantic, Verve, United Artists, Blue Note, Audiophile and DRG.
Jazz musicians suffered during the infamous sixties, when the Beatles ushered in a new musical era dominated by rock n’ roll. Asked whether she was ever pressured by the labels to record certain material, she reports that “most of the time I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. There was one instance when it was suggested to me that perhaps if I tried recording some pop material, it would be a more commercial way to go. But it can’t work. You don’t satisfy the people who like pop music, and you don’t satisfy the jazz people – and you certainly don’t satisfy yourself.”
Like many artists, her latest CDs are her favorites of all her recordings. The just-released “One Morning in May” features Ken Peplowski on clarinet and tenor, Randy Sandke on trumpet, Jay Leonhart (a frequent recording partner) on bass and Joe Cocuzzo on drums. Her previous CD, “All in Fun,” features songs by Jerome Kern.
Finding inspiration in performances by other musicians, Barbara speaks of her influences as well as her colleagues. A recording by pianist Fred Hersch was playing as this interview began, and she spoke of her love of classical music as well as jazz. She also named singers Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett – “I think it’s a help to know lyrics, particularly in ballads” – and younger pianists Bill Charlap, Benny Green and Cyrus Chestnut as favorites. For influences, Barbara lauded the piano playing of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Also Nat “King” Cole, a fine pianist who saw his piano playing eclipsed by his singing in the eyes of the public.
Asked if people ever confused her with the sixties soul singer of the same name, she points out that “actually, my name is Barbara Carol Coppersmith. Coppersmith is my maiden name, and that was my name when I began working. But people used to ask, ‘How do you spell it, with a C or a K?’ And it was too long. So I shortened it to Barbara Carroll.”
Her membership in the AFM began over 50 years ago. “I always felt so strongly about being a member of the musicians’ union, and I still do. But today I think there are a lot of musicians who don’t join. I can’t conceive of being a working musician and not being a member of the union, but that’s because of when I grew up and when I first started. I grew up in a politically liberal household that believed in unions.
“The union is your protection. That’s how I feel. If it weren’t for the union, musicians wouldn’t have half of what they have now, in terms of scales and protection.”
She points out that musicians may not recognize the importance of working under a union contract when they’re young, and be dismayed by money paid for health and pension instead of wages. “But eventually you realize there’s a point to it, and it’s terrific. I think musicians make a mistake if they don’t contribute to the pension plan – a mistake they won’t realize until they get to a certain age. The union has meant a great deal to musicians in giving us some power that we wouldn’t have had. I’m very proud to be a member of the musicians’ union.”
Barbara feels fortunate to have worked with all the stellar musicians spoken of earlier. Other colleagues have been Art Farmer, Jerome Richardson, Claudio Roditi, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, and George Duvivier (who would double-park his car on Madison Avenue and run into the Café Carlyle, with his bass, to sit in with her).
Classic photographs of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (with Barbara herself), Dinah Washington, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and other great musical figures adorn the walls of her apartment. They were taken by her second husband, Bert Block, a musician and theatrical agent for Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corporation, which represented many of the great performers.
Barbara Carroll clearly loves the performing milieu and takes pride in being a part of it. “All I can say is, it’s been a great ride. I feel totally blessed to have been able to pursue something that I love so much. The pleasure I get from it is certainly no less now than when I started. I’m very grateful to have been able to pursue a career that I love, and to keep on doing it.”