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Barbara Carroll

Barbara Caroll Barbara Caroll
Each year at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Mary Lou Williams Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to one of the most extraordinary female jazz performers in the world. This year the prestigious honor will be awarded to the elegant jazz pianist, composer and vocalist Barbara Carroll.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Carroll about the award she will be receiving.

JazzReview: Let's begin with you being called "The First Lady Jazz Pianist." That is certainly an honor.

Barbara Carroll: Yes, it's very flattering, but I think actually the first lady of jazz piano was Mary Lou Williams. She was the first one to gain recognition as being a marvelous pianist, and of course she was a great arranger, composer and everything else. She was wonderful. I'm also thrilled because there is a Mary Lou Williams Foundation in Washington and this spring I'm receiving the Mary Lou Williams Life Achievement Award. Mary Lou Williams was an extraordinary musician.

JazzReview: That will be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC?

Barbara Carroll: Yes, and I'm thrilled about it!

JazzReview: You have a repertoire from some of the greatest composers this music has known, from Ellington to Strayhorn, from Monk to Rodgers and Hart. How do you select the music?

Barbara Carroll: As many jazz musicians do, my repertoire is composed of the Great American Songbook, which means that it's composed of music by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Sammy Cahn, George Gershwin, etc. Those are the people who wrote extensively during the 30's, 40's and so forth. They wrote some of the greatest songs and jazz musicians have interpreted them for years. So that's where the major part of my repertoire comes from. The most recent editions are Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and some original compositions. We try to run the gamut and include everything. The way I choose the songs is [based on] only one criteria. The song has to appeal to me. I don't care who wrote it. If the song speaks to me, I like it.

JazzReview: You've moved from Bebop to Cabaret. Was that a smooth transition?

Barbara Carroll: No, I think the word Cabaret has become an umbrella term which may cover a lot of live performers, more so than it did in the past. At one time, Cabaret meant a German singer singing depressing songs. But Cabaret now means live performance into its surroundings, more or less. So that's what I do, except that I'm playing jazz clubs. So I don't know whether I've moved on or moved back, progressed or regressed [laughter]. And the fact that I've been singing some, I supposed that's a little more Cabaret than just instrumental.

JazzReview: Who would you say were your greatest creative influences?

Barbara Carroll: My greatest influence was when I first heard Nat Cole play the piano when I was very young. That's when the light went on. I was already playing the piano, but when I heard him play, I realized that's what I wanted to do. And through the years there were other pianist: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and later on Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Errol Gardner and Bill Evans. People like that. They have been the greatest influences on me and also the jazz musicians that I idolized. . .and singers such as Carmen McCrae, Ella Fitzgerald and so forth. We have been lucky to have so many great jazz musicians who have contributed so much to our culture. We have much to draw from.

JazzReview: I listen to your music and the music of musicians you were singing or playing to. I also hear what's being played now and what was played then. There's a feeling of it being a vanished era.

Barbara Carroll: I hate to think that, but what you've said is unfortunately true. And because of that fact, those of us who want to keep the music alive feel it's our mission to perpetuate those songs, that music, and not to let it die. The audience is relatively small, unfortunately, and also the number of jazz records in comparison to the current popular music. So those that are interested in these songs just feel we have to keep bringing them to the attention of the public and to the attention of the young people, so it's not lost to future generations.

JazzReview: I feel they have to really understand what jazz is and what jazz is about. Whenever I'm at a jazz workshop or festival I hear someone say, "I love jazz!" Many times they are referring to what is known as smooth jazz, not classic jazz.

Barbara Carroll: My experience has been when young people are exposed to these things, they love it. We are trying to continue this. It’s fun to do and we're having a great time doing it!

JazzReview: The tradition of handing down skills from one generation to another has been prevalent in jazz. What do you tell the new vocalist or musician entering into the jazz world?

Barbara Carroll: I think you have to listen, listen and then absorb and bring something of yourself into it. You can't imitate or copy other people. You have to listen to what has gone before, make that part of you and go on from there. I think it's important to listen and be aware of what's gone before. The more you can play, the more you can experiment and play with other musicians. That can be a great advantage.

JazzReview: The beauty of your voice and your playing is that it contains a lot of emotion. You have had a tremendous impact on the jazz music that we listen to. What do you contribute to that?

Barbara Carroll: I can't sing a lyric I can't relate to. If I sing a ballad, I have to be able to relate to that lyric. So it has to be a song that's appropriate for me. Therefore, I can sing it emotionally or with feeling because I mean it. It's also important to know the lyrics to songs, even when I wasn't singing (I only began singing relatively recently). At the beginning of my career I didn't sing at all. I only knew the lyrics to songs. I think knowing the lyrics can help you instrumentally because it gives you a feeling for the meaning of the song, maybe by the way you phrase it or the kind of improvisation you would do when you're playing spontaneously on it. These things are important. I think you have to know the material you're dealing with and make it yours. If you're singing a song, you have to do a song that's right for you.

JazzReview: You did mention the Women in Jazz Mary Lou Williams Award? It's an honor that they've selected a great person to receive such an award.

Barbara Carroll: Thank you, you're very kind. I’m thrilled to be recognized by anything to do with Mary Lou Williams. What can be better than playing music that you love and being able to relate to people that way and having people enjoy it, especially in the trying times of today. We do what we can.

JazzReview: What else can we expect next from Barbara Carroll?

Barbara Carroll: I don't know. . .another CD. I'm thrilled to do what I've been doing and to bring the good songs to those that want to listen. That's my mission. All of us who play jazz really mustn’t let this music die. I don't think it will though. There are new people coming up all the time that are innovative and doing creative things. There are so many good talented people. It's very exciting to hear them.

Ms. Carroll will be performing nearly every Wednesday at Birdland with bassist Jay Leonhart and Joe Cocuzzo on drums. Ms. Carroll's lifetime achievement honors in 2003 also include the Mac and Backstage Bistro Awards.

Her latest CD One Morning in May features Ms. Carroll's trademark progressive percussive and lyrical style joined by an all-star line up: Jay Leonhart on bass, Joe Cocuzzo on drums, Ken Peplowski on sax and clarinet, Jay Berliner on guitar and Randy Sanke on trumpet.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Barbara Caroll
  • Subtitle: The Epitome of Elegance
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