Jazz Pioneer Carline Ray Passes at 88

Carline Ray, one of the great jazz pioneers, an activist in women’s rights, a performer and educator, and an active member of Saint Peter’s Church, died at Isabella House in Manhattan on July 18, 2013.  She was 88 years old.

Carline is survived by her daughter, Catherine Russell, also a great musician, her sister Irma Sloan, and nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Carline Ray was born 21 April 1925, New York City, New York, USA.

Although her father, Elisha Ray, was a gifted musician, he had been unable to find steady employment in music. Even so, he played with James Reese Europe’s band and was also offered work with the New York Philharmonic. Carline herself sang and played piano, and at the age of 16 entered the Juilliard School of Music, from which her father had graduated in 1925. While at Juilliard, Ray studied composition and she also first played jazz, joining Edna Smith, a fellow student and bass player, gradually becoming adept on this instrument.

In 1946, upon graduating from Juilliard, she and Smith joined the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm. In addition to playing guitar with the band, Ray also sang. In 1948, after the Sweethearts disbanded, Ray joined Erskine Hawkins And His Orchestra as a singer but also played guitar rather than simply sitting idle between vocal numbers. After the Hawkins engagement, Ray and Smith teamed up with fellow Sweetheart Pauline Braddy to form a trio that played in New York clubs, including one managed by pianist and Orchestra leader, Luis Russell, whom Ray married in 1956. At this time, Ray added the Fender bass to her growing arsenal of instruments and she and Smith would sometimes switch instruments. In addition to working with the trio, Ray also played with various other bands, in particular a Latin band led by pianist Frank Anderson.

She continued to study, gaining a master’s degree in voice in 1956. Throughout the next two decades Ray worked constantly, singing and playing all the instruments upon which she was proficient, in a wide variety of musical settings. In 1981 she was awarded a grant to study the acoustic bass under renowned jazzman Major Holley. Comfortably adapting to the differing demands of jazz, popular music, classics, and choral works, Ray was a complete professional, finding in music a lifetime of challenge and fulfillment. Some of her performing credits as bassist include working with Sy Oliver Orchestra, Duke Ellington Orchestra directed by Mercer Ellington, pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, trombonist-composer Melba Liston, and singer Ruth Brown. Nevertheless, Carline met her share of the prejudice that greets women in jazz. As she remarked to author Sally Placksin, ‘… I would rather be taken seriously as a musician, and the fact that I’m female – I just happen to be female, that’s all’.

In 2005, Carline was the recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, and in 2008, she received an IWJ (International Women In Jazz) Award.

Carline is also featured in the documentary film ‘The Girls in the Band,’ directed by Judy Chaikin and in 2013 she released her debut recording produced by her daughter Catherine Russell, Carline Ray “Vocal Sides”.

Carline’s memorial liturgy will be held at Saint Peter’s Church later this Fall where her ashes will be inurned.