Written by Grant Jackson from NPR
On this episode of Piano Jazz, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Carline Ray is Marian McPartland‘s guest for a session recorded in 1997. The two veteran performers get together to perform a set including tunes by Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Jimmy Van Heusen & Johnny Burke, and more.
A lifelong New Yorker, Carline Ray was born in Harlem on April 21, 1925. Her father was a gifted musician and Juilliard graduate who encouraged his daughter to take up piano and singing. At 16, she entered Juilliard, where she studied composition and played the bass. After graduating in 1946, she joined the world’s first all-female, interracial big band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, as the guitarist and a featured vocalist.
Ray next worked with Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra as a singer and guitarist, and later formed a trio that played New York club dates. She met her future husband, Luis Russell (musical director for Louis Armstrong), during one of those gigs.
Ray continued working with her trio throughout the 1950s. She continued to add instruments to her act, including the Fender electric bass. She also worked with various other musical settings, including a Latin band led by pianist Frank Anderson. Ray’s vocal work has found her backing pop stars Patti Page, Bobby Darin and Della Reese; contributing choral performances with Leonard Bernstein and various New York groups; and adding vocal solos to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams‘ ecclesiastical project, Mary Lou’s Mass, recorded in 1970.
Carline Ray was a lifelong student of music and mentor to fellow musicians. She received a master’s degree in voice in 1956 from Manhattan School of Music, and in 1981, she was awarded a grant to study the acoustic bass under Major Holley. She continued to play festival dates in all-female ensembles and made herself accessible to upcoming female musicians throughout her career.
Ray’s daughter, Catherine Russell, is one of today’s most critically acclaimed jazz vocalists; her own albums show a clear reverence for the music of her parents.
Carline Ray died from complications of a stroke on July 18, 2013. She was 88.
Originally broadcast May 24, 1997.