Carline Ray Passes at Age 87

Catherine Russell announced this morning that her mother, Carline Ray, passed this morning at age 87. She was one of the last surviving members of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Below you will find a feature that Arnold Jay Smith wrote on Carline a few years ago.

Her late husband was Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong’s bandleader/arranger/pianist. Their daughter is the singer Catherine “Cat” Russell. Bassist/ vocalist Carline Ray is a name perhaps not as familiar as some other Octos in our file, but she’s been playing with notable jazz personages for decades. In the 1940s, she played with the pioneering all-female band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She was Mercer Ellington’s bassist and singer when he conducted the music for Alvin Ailey’s first Ailey/Ellington modern dance celebration, some 30 years ago. She plays upright and electric bass, piano, and guitar. Her vocal tones are in the rich alto range.

Carline is also an activist and an icon for Women in Jazz both the organization and the movement in general. She’s advised and befriended countless young female musicians who might otherwise not have had the persistence to deal with the hardships of the road: the one-nighters, playing what is largely a male-dominated music, and trying to establish an individual voice while remaining side players. In so doing, she’s earned the respect of musicians of both genders.

Our interview took place in Disneyworld North aka the Times Square area of West 42nd St., New York City in an increasingly noisome restaurant down the block from B.B. King’s and not far from Carline’s apartment. Our conversation belied the lack of intimacy.

“I didn’t expect to be living this long [she was born in 1925], so I didn’t know what to expect,” she confided at the outset. ‘”I’m still excited about meeting interesting people and going to more interesting places.” In 2002 she went to South Africa with dancer/choreographer Mickey Davidson, for whom she played bass. “Davidson’s son, Malcolm, was marrying a South African girl. We briefly toured Capetown and went to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated in that small cell for 26 years. He [and the other prisoners] had to break up rocks with shiny things in them [mica?], and they weren’t allowed sun glasses.” As for the music she heard there, the only “native” music was what was played at the wedding. “It was for tribal dancers, which we heard later at a presentation of dances. They were really letting go. The company was 15-20 strong.”

Carline’s musical exposure began at home. “I was born on the same day as Queen Elizabeth II, only a year earlier, and I don’t carry a purse all the time. My father always had a lot of instruments around the house.” Ray pre was a graduate of Juilliard, specializing in brass, euphonium, tubas, and even a sousaphone, “which I saw him play most often as he played in marching bands,” she remembered. You could sense her admiration as she identified her father as her musical hero. “He went to Tuskegee Institute prior to it becoming Tuskegee University. His was the last graduating class under the presidency of Booker T. Washington. During WWI, he played with James Reese Europe in France.” He was offered a chair at Juilliard, but after Carline was born, a steady paying job at the Post Office seemed a safer bet. When she was 16, Carline applied to and was accepted by the school, but didn’t tell her father, for fear that he would say that they couldn’t afford it. It was a fait accompli when she finally told him. “I was a piano major under a marvelous teacher named Harold Lewis,” she said. Carline remained a piano major for two years. “I decided to change my major to composition under Vittorio Pianini. Ellis Larkins was there when I was. We would corral him into a practice room to play whatever he wanted for us.”

Her turn towards other instruments came when she met bassist Edna Smith, who was a graduate of New York’s High School of Music and Art. “We were standing in line to register [at Juilliard], and we became friends. She was very aggressive when it came to digging up gigs. Up to that time I had been listening to ‘The Street’ [W. 52nd]: Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Red Allen. Edna’s brother, Karl, had a car, and he would pick her up and take us uptown to The Nest, an after-hours place, where musicians hung out. We would also go to the Hollywood, where there would be an old-timer piano night. Young cats would go there as well. That’s where I met Billy Taylor. Art Tatum would be the last pianist to go on. Nobody followed Art.” One night someone asked Carline to sing. To this day she has no idea who even knew that she could sing. “Are you ready for this?” she remarked. “Art asked if it was alright for him to play for me.” She thinks that she did a Gershwin tune, albeit shakily. “Then Tatum asked me, ‘Did I play alright for you?’ I made it my business to get up there more often to hear the likes of Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith.” It was the mid ’40s and the after-hours joints were jumpin’.

Carline was living in Harlem, when one night Erskine Hawkins asked her to come over to the Savoy Ballroom to audition as a singer. Did I mention that she was playing rhythm guitar at the time? After the vocal audition she didn’t recall what she sang, but she did remember that Charlie Buchanan, manager of the Savoy, approached her and said, ”’Young lady, tell you what I’m gonna do. You will never have to pay to come in here again.’ I loved to dance, so that was a major invitation. He was true to his word.” Carline remained with the Hawkins band for about two years. “I did his famous recording of ‘After Hours’ along with reedmen Julian Dash (‘Tuxedo Junction’), Haywood Henry and Jimmy Mitchell,” she said. “Avery Parish, the tune’s composer, was the pianist. There was some jealousy that I was getting more playing time than some of the other players, and I was told by Haywood who was always looking out for me that I would be ‘approached.’ But I was always treated like a lady and acted the same way.”

There were lean, non-musical times, when Carline had to take other gigs such as managing a dry cleaners. But then there were The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Luis Russell. “We had formed a trio: Edna Smith, bass, Pauline Braddy, drums, and myself on piano,” she said. “Mr. Luis Russell, who was managing a room called Town Hill, came to the Village Door where we were playing. [He was] looking for a group to fill in while another of his groups was held over elsewhere. He hired us sound-unheard because he liked our press photo. The drum kit, the bass, and we piled into my car, and we made it for opening night. We had never laid eyes on Luis Russell prior to that.”

Carline related an occasion when a police precinct captain paid Russell a visit. “They went into Luis’ office scowling. When they came out they were both smiling. I said right there that I had to get to know Mr. Russell better.” The Town Hill gig that was originally booked for two weeks lasted six months. Being a pianist himself, Russell kept the piano well-tuned for Carline and always asked her if “everything was all right.”

Soon, she was dining at his house, where she sampled his native Panamanian cuisine. Things got warmer. “He took me to Basin Street East, where I got to meet Louis Armstrong for the first time,” she said. “We became engaged on New Year’s Eve 1955-56, which was my final year of my Masters at Manhattan School of Music.” The evening was made all the more auspicious because Carline was doing a television show with Leonard Bernstein. “We were doing a choral Christmas and we had to memorize all the music because [Maestro Bernstein] didn’t like having the music in front of us. I gave my brand-new engagement ring to Luis for safekeeping, because I was afraid of it falling off. No one knew we were even keeping company, so when I played Town Hill and they checked my fingers, no ring. Well, right after the TV show, who do you think was waiting for me to give me back my ring? Hubby to be.”

I queried Carline about Luis’s affiliations with Louis Armstrong. “He didn’t talk about it much, but he did leave a steamer trunk, and in it is a box marked ‘Louis Armstrong.’ I don’t know what’s in it,” she told me. “I do remember one time we were at Pee Wee Russell’s house, where he was throwing a wedding anniversary party, when Louis telephoned. Seems he wanted to come over it was after midnight to take home movies of the event. Another time, Louis had asked my husband to go on the road with him, as his regular pianist Billy Kyle was ill. Luis didn’t want to leave his new family, so he recommended another Panamanian pianist, Rod Rodriguez. Louis understood my husband’s desire to stay home and he seemed happy with Rodriguez. That’s about all Luis and I ever discussed about Louis.”

[A fascinating digression as a preamble to her time with the Sweethearts: Her trio was being booked by Nat Lazzaro’s office in the Brill Building, who also booked Stump & Stumpy, the famous tap duo. The story has come down to me that Harold Cromer (Stumpy) was at a rent party and fell over Dizzy Gillespie’s horn, supposedly breaking it. Both Messrs. Cromer and Gillespie confirmed the tale to me. But Carline was there when it happened, and she tells a different story. She says firmly that the horn was never “broken,” as first reported, just bent into its now internationally-renowned shape. And it wasn’t at a rent party. “Edna and I were a duo playing intermission at a [midtown] place called Snooky’s. Dizzy and his group were the headliners. During a break, he and his wife Lorraine went out for a drink. [Singer] Babs Gonzales walked onto the bandstand. When Babs left the bandstand and Dizzy picked up his horn to begin his second set, the bell was bent up. Did Babs accidentally step on something while on the bandstand? I don’t know. Dizzy looked at it and murmured to himself as only he would, ‘What the fuck?’ But when he played it, it worked. To my mind it sounded even better with the bell up. I guess Diz felt the same way because he never looked back.”]

The story of her affiliation with the Sweethearts stems from activity in and around New York’s Brill Building. “Ours was a different group then,” she began. “Jackie King was our pianist; I was playing guitar by that time.”

[Another digression: “One of the instruments in my father’s house was a guitar, and it hung in my room. Edna Smith’s guitarist didn’t like to rehearse, so she asked me if she could borrow my father’s, as we had upcoming gigs.” Quickly and fearlessly, Carline taught herself the instrument.]

The Sweethearts (continued): “Edna [still a bass player] and I were walking to the subway, having left Lazzaro’s office. She had her [electric] bass on her back, and we were off to our respective parents’ homes where we lived she in the Bronx, and me on W. 148th St. A nice-looking brown-skinned man came up to her and asked if he knew her. She replied, ‘Unless you’re a musician, I don’t know you.’ He went onto introduce himself as Maurice King, director of the Sweethearts of Rhythm. It seems he was looking for a group of girls to replace some who were leaving [the band].” In a coincidence straight out of a ’40s movie, it happened that the configuration of Edna and Carline’s group was exactly what the Sweethearts needed: piano, bass, and guitar, which was a very popular trio format. Think Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, and later, Oscar Peterson.

The Sweethearts were opening in St. Louis the next day. Carline was about to graduate from Juilliard, which took priority over all else, so she asked for a delay of a fortnight or so. King agreed, and sent her a ticket on the fabled “Spirit of St. Louis” railroad train. “I had never been west of New Jersey in my life,” Carline remarked. “So here I go, on the road. The guitar I took with me was given to me by Steve Gibson (not related to the guitar family) a custom-made flat top, round-hole Epiphone, which I recently gave to my son-in-law. We had a wonderful time [on the road] with both Erskine Hawkins as well as the Sweethearts, making all the black theaters, including the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington, D.C., and others across the country. It was like vaudeville. There were opening and closing acts, dancers and comedians in the middle. We backed them all. Along the way there was ‘Moms’ Mabley. Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown were sometimes on the bill. I stayed with the Sweethearts for about the same length of time as with Erskine two years or so. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut, and I learned a lot.”

Carline was doing a great deal of backup vocal work. Besides Bernstein she worked for Patty Page and Bobby Darin. She was the backup baby on call for so many 1950s pop hits. It was also during this time that Carline met pianist John Browning, who became her teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. “No matter where he was, he would always make it back for my lesson,” she remembered. At MSM at the same time were Donald Byrd and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson. “Perky and I became best friends. He got me my next teacher after MSM, Claire Gelza.”

In 1956, baby Catherine came on the scene. “I took this child with me on gig after gig,” Carline said. “She was old before her time. Luis put her on his lap at the piano and she would tinkle away. One time during a particularly popular TV commercial, I hummed the jingle. She said, ‘No, mommy. You’re in the wrong key.’ And she would sing it for me. Perfect pitch and she couldn’t have been more than five. Not long after that, I met Arnie Lawrence and he hired me for a date in a park in Queens. We were warming up and I had forgotten my pitch pipe, so I turned to Cat and said, ‘Give me a G,’ which she did.” Neither Luis nor Carline had perfect pitch. I’ll leave that as a non-sequitur. (Cue Twilight Zone theme .)

Although I had heard her prior, my first formal encounter with Carline came when she appeared with Mercer Ellington’s band backing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company during their first Duke Ellington season in the late 1970s. “It began when Alvin Ailey wanted to choreograph parts of Mary Lou Williams’s “Mass,” on which I had recorded some vocal parts. Actually, I was wearing two hats: bassist and singer.”

[Carline had picked up the electric bass guitar, specifically a Fender, after hearing it played by Edna Smith. It was Monk Montgomery who first played it with the Lionel Hampton band, after Hamp had made a business arrangement with Mr. Fender. “When I saw Edna’s I thought, ‘Ah. A four- string guitar without the two top strings.’ Edna would lend me her bass when she couldn’t make a gig. I was hooked. I took to it naturally. Never studied.”]

“Mary Lou’s Mass” was a mainstay with the Ailey Company for three or four years in the mid 1970s. Then, in the late ’70s, Ailey began choreographing Ellington’s extended compositions. Carline knew all Duke’s commercial tunes, but was excited to learn the longer things. Ailey presented that opportunity. The first was Ellington’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer, first sung with Ellington by Mahalia Jackson. Carline sang Mahalia’s part. [The conductor was Joyce Brown, who achieved fame in Broadway’s Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and Purlie, starring Cleavon Little and introducing Melba Moore.]

“I had subbed for Mercer’s bassist, and he liked what I did, so he asked if I could join the band. I was teaching at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, but they hadn’t sent me an invitation letter for the next semester. So the next time it came up, I said to Mercer, ‘Have bass, will travel.”’

When the band backed Ailey/Ellington in some of Duke’s historic long-form masterpieces, Carline was there to vocalize and/or play her electric bass. The repertoire included “Three Black Kings,” “Night Creature,” “The River” (originally composed as a commission from the American Ballet Theatre), and a medley of Ellingtonia called “Pas de Duke.” It was an honor when Down Beat magazine allowed me to review the dance series for the first time. For their 50th Anny in 2008-9, the Ailey Company reprised some of the Ellington pieces. They haven’t lost a step to time (pun intended).

In 1980, at the encouragement of United Jazz Coalition founder Cobi Narita, Carline applied for and won an NEA grant to study upright bass. “I went right to my idol, Milt Hinton. But he was always on the road. My second idol choice was Major Holley, and he became my teacher.” She continued playing electric, as well. “I usually carried my electric when I went on the road, because I heard all the stories of having to pay for another seat on the plane for the upright.” That said, she has mentored others on upright bass.

Carline gives all the credit for forming International Women In Jazz to Narita. But it’s always the purveyors who carry the music to public’s ears and in Carline’s case teach it to young aspirants. Many times Carline was the only female in the bands in which she played. Now, largely thanks to her and other pioneers, there are more all female or female-led bands than ever in our music’s history. There’s even a cable television program called “International Woman In Jazz.” Hosted by vocalist/percussionist Fran McIntyre, the show has been a weekly staple on Manhattan Neighborhood Network since 1995. “Not only did we play [on the show],” Carline explained, “but Fran taught us how to use the cameras and the mixing board. She was one of my students. She calls me her mentor. She ‘mentors’ me to death,” Carline laughed good-naturedly

Regrets: “Women musicians are simply not mentioned in many encyclopedias,” Carline laments. “Ken Burns included Mary Lou, of course. But how many others?” The Burns PBS series, Jazz, also ignored European jazz, Latin jazz and Third Stream, to name but a few omissions. Dare I facetiously rationalize that jazz women are in good company with others who Burns omitted? Among the great women of jazz have been Marian McPartland, Marjorie Hyams, Mary Osborne, and Pat Moran, and that hardly scratches the surface. We owe thanks for the resultant preponderance of females now playing in your local saloons (or at least over their sound systems) to the perseverance of those pioneers.

Unfinished: “I’m not going to add anything more because my life goes on and on and I don’t know what I’m going be doing.”

Originally published at