By Chet Williamson
In his monumental memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand: Fifty Years of Music, from Honky-tonk to High Society, Worcester-born author Don Asher dedicates all of chapter one to his first encounter with the legendary local pianist, Jaki Byard. In chapter two he turns his attention to yet another great home-grown talent, 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 coarse 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. These days she lives in Manhattan where she has resided since leaving New England more than 50 years ago.
“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.
|Young Barbara Coppersmith at the piano|
“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.”
|Commerce High School|
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, weddings 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 named 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 musicians 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, Elinor 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."
After the war, Carroll found herself in Philadelphia. In 1946, she spent a year and a half playing solo piano in a cocktail lounge. In 1947, Carroll finally worked up the courage to move to New York. “The big city beckoned me,” she told NPR’s Terri Gross. “I got to New York City as quickly as I could.”
In an interview with Downbeat, Carroll talks about those early days of freelancing in New York and dealing with sexism. In his book, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Wil Friedwald quoted Carroll: “When I first came to New York, I couldn’t get any work using my real name, so I had friends who would send me to jobs. But they would tell the contractor to look for a ‘Bobby’ Carroll. By the time they realized that ‘Bobby’ was ‘Bobbie,” who was actually Barbara, it was too late.”
Carroll told Downbeat that she would “arrive at the location, go up to the bandstand, the leader would look at me, say, ‘Who are you?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m the pianist for the evening.’ Everybody thought if you were a girl, you couldn’t play, you know.”
But, as Friedwald pointed out, “After they heard her play, Carroll was never fired, and eventually, acquired a reputation under her real name and gender identity.”
Forming her first trio, Carroll made her debut at the Club Downbeat at 66 West 52nd Street – then known as “Swing Street.” “I was lucky,” she said. “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.”
|Carroll, Lombardi, and Wayne|
|The Trio going over the music|
In his book New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham, author Nick Catalano quotes Carroll’s take on the city in the late 1940s. “During this exact time period, the glory days of Fifty Second Street were in full swing with bebop sweeping the street like a tornado. At The Onyx, The Three Deuces, Jimmy Ryan’s, and other clubs, the bandstands were alive with the black beboppers who had invented the music up in Harlem and were now performing it for packed houses of whites who could not get enough of it. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach and other black boppers ruled supreme on Swing Street, and white players of repute were fighting to access the new music and jam along.”
|Carroll and Dizzy Gillespie|
The energy and excitement was explosive. For Carroll, it was, “really something for a little girl from Worcester, Massachusetts.” According to Pizzi, in 1948, Carroll was Benny Goodman’s next choice (following his fall out with Mary Lou Williams) to record with his short-lived bebop combo, which featured Wardell Gray on tenor saxophone.
Through Goodman, Carroll made her earliest documented recording as part of a studio band led by Ake “Stan” Hasselgard. According to Friedwald, the Swedish clarinetist was both “Benny Goodman’s only protégé on his own instrument and probably the first person to play bebop on that instrument.”
Hear a clip of “Cottontop,” recorded in November 18, 1948 at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chwrtgiBgtE
Friedwald also reported that over the next few years, before her self-imposed retirement, Carroll recorded on “many classic early modern jazz sessions, including a live recording at the Royal Roost (with J.J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Cecil Payne, Buddy DeFranco and Max Roach) in which she spells Bud Powell himself for one number and a fabulous studio date (with Red Rodney, Serge Chaloff, Al Cohn, and Oscar Pettiford) that’s been issued under both Chaloff and Pettiford’s names at different times.”
After the Club Downbeat, Carroll’s next steady gig in New York was at Georgie Auld’s Tin Pan Alley in the Hotel Markwell, at 49th and Broadway, where she worked as a single. According to Friedwald, Carroll’s first date as a leader happened in 1950, a date that included two originals, “Barbara’s Carol,” and “The Puppet Who Danced Bop.”
In 1951, when bassist Clyde Lombardi left to join the Woody Herman band, Carroll not only hired a replacement, she would meet her future husband, Joe Shulman, a known player around New York having participated in the Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool sessions.
|Claude Thornhill Orchestra, featuring bassist Joe Shulman|
Carroll recalls their meeting. “My bass player was leaving so Herb Wasserman, the drummer, suggested I call Joe, who was a friend of his. Well, at the time he was playing with Peggy Lee and name bands like Claude Thornhill. So I said, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t want to work with me. But Herb told me to call him anyway. It turned out he was at liberty and so he came down and rehearsed with us. He found he liked the musical freedom of a small group, so he stayed on.”
The new trio’s first gig was at The Embers, 161 East 54th between Lexington and Third Streets. “They always had two attractions at once,” Carroll told writer Sanford Josephson. “Lo and behold, when we got there for rehearsal, I was told that the other act was Art Tatum. I restrained myself from running out on 54th Street into the traffic. Anyway, it was such an experience because we would play and then he would go on. He was so wonderful to me, so encouraging. And having the opportunity to listen to him every night was stunning.”
Carroll told Downbeat magazine that the pianist, although intimidating, was very supportive. “The first time we were there,” she recalled, “He was very sweet and very helpful to me. He didn’t give me technical advice, but he realized it was a trauma playing opposite him, and he was very encouraging.”
These were heady times for Carroll and company. As Friedwald wrote: “Her trios and quartets provide accompaniment for such colossi as Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, and even Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.”
Often hailed as the first feminine disciple of Bud Powell bop piano school, Carroll also began to acquire society following, playing many of the finest supper clubs in New York. She performed on stage as a jazz pianist in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production, Me and Juliet. And, through her work in theater, began to accompany cabaret singers.
See: Carroll with Sylvia Syms in a 1952 performance of Benny Carter’s “Lonely Woman” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4wwuRczxK8&feature=fvst
In 1957, tragedy hit. Her husband of three years, Schulman, died of a heart attack while the couple vacationed on Fire Island, NY. He was 33 – Sept. 12, 1923-Aug. 2, 1957. Shulman was one of the more in-demand bassists of his generation and his talents were diverse and all encompassing. He worked and recorded with everyone from Les Brown to Django Reinhardt, from Peggy Lee to Duke Ellington.
In her grief, Carroll continued working for as long as she could. “After he died it was very difficult,” she said, “because I wanted to work, but you see I was working with a trio and I needed a bass player and so I had to audition bass players. And, it was extremely difficult. Nobody played as well as he and, of course, nobody could fill his shoes …. It took a long time to get over that.”
Bebop Bobbie Carroll took time off from music in the 1960s. She returned to the music scene in 1972 and continues today. 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. 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.'”
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fZnAl_pkEM – Newport New York