Mom, Dad and Carmen McRae
By Fred Crane
My musical background has little to do with me, so please bear with a
bit of history. My Father was a jazz pianist and my Mother, a jazz
singer. In case that wasn’t influence enough, it wasn’t long before my
sister, Kelly, began to display a similar drive and talent. Music was
simply daily life; corn flakes and scales, eggs and arpeggios. For all I
knew, everyone had perfect pitch (myself excepted, an obvious black sheep from the first notes sung).
If there was a band in town, they’d likely known Dad from the road. Not
unlike many professions, jazz is a smaller family than you’d think,.
Perhaps even more so at that time due to the recession that was at hand
in the face of pop music. Regardless, over the years various luminaries
stopped by; the Adderley band, Ella’s rhythm section, James Moody, Joe
Pass, Lee Konitz...and a whole bevy of others. Some known, and some,
like my Dad, known to other players. Much of it I was too young to
recall. I was just as prone to kick my soccer ball as to sit around
My Father’s professional life began playing over a PA system that
spanned the aircraft carriers that were docked in Virginia during the
tail end of WWII. Like many young lads who signed up fibbing about
their age, he was mercifully put on a dock, in this case as a
boilermaker’s helper. However, during lunch breaks he played for all
the men on the carriers, as they went about making those small cities on
the water function, and before he himself would have to get back below
to pound and turn. Soon thereafter, 6 months I believe, his boiler
maker pulled him aside and gave him an envelope. It contained a bus
ticket to New Orleans, and a collection the guys had taken up to keep
him going for a while...it amounted to around $200, which in the mid
40’s was no small chunk of change.
Dad’s first stop was Loyola University, to audition for their music
program. After a short audition he was given a full ride in exchange
for playing on the radio twice a week.
His first small band gig was with Al Hirt. Then he went off with Woody Herman. Dad and Al would have a friendship that spanned decades, and each
engrained in me that I was from New Orleans,(and indeed I was born
there), though we moved to Dallas when I was rather young. When Jumbo
(Al’s well earned knick name) grabbed your shirt, pulled you in for a
bear hug and a kiss, breathed on you like a bull a half inch from your
face, and said that you were from New Orleans and never to f’in forget
it...well, you didn’t. With Al for a God Father (ahhh no, there wasn’t
any Christening), and guys like Pete Fountain, Bill Huntington, and Al
Belletto nye, it’s no surprise that I’ve always felt more a product of
New Orleans than anywhere else.
Dad had several trios through the years. Guys like Jimmy Zitano, Bill
Huntington, Marc Johnson, Joey Baron, Kirby Stewart, Steve Houghton,
Paul Warburton, and others made for synergies that could all find the
pocket. He also did some wonderful duets with Carl Fontana, the famed
underground trombonist. Those guys taught me many life lessons, not
the least of which was listening...truly listening. I’m still working
on it. My folks along with J.Z., Bill, and Marc, were the colors of my
Dad also played for the pianists each year at the Van Cliburn, where he
became passing friends with Samuel Barber. The story goes that Sam had
hopped on the piano while Dad was on a break; a behavior that in most
situations doesn’t pass as kosher. Not recognizing him, Dad was glaring
and on the verge of unleashing a helping of ferocity when Mr Barber
introduced himself. Talk about the proverbial 180. Father adored Sam’s
compositions and had been playing them since his youth. They had nice
exchanges for many years thereafter.
Dad did teach, actually ‘mentored’ is more accurate, but only a few
students; Marc Johnson and David Golub stand out. Later he would
arrange an audition for Marc with Bill Evans. Marc ended up with the
gig for the last several years of Bill's life. The other student, David,
was a wunderkind classical pianist who went on to play for Isaac Stern,
and eventually had his own classical trio in Europe...David had a
photographic memory of sorts. Horrible acne that somehow you didn't
notice. He was all light. He went to Germany for 4 months and came
back fluent...that kind of mind. Years later, when he would come to
town, we would go eat Mexican food and talk about Woody Allen movies.
With t-shirts painted with guacamole, and both of us full of beer, he'd
be the last guy you'd pick out of line-up as a classical player. He
married into Italian royalty of some sort and died long before his time.
When I was around 10 I began to take a stronger interest in music. I
had a drum set and my Father had shown me a few things on the piano,
(the same few things are the totality of my repertoire these many years
later). However listening was are in which I excelled. I would take 40
albums a month from my parents collection and commit them to memory,
taking care to absorb the liner notes. I miss liner notes. I started
hiding cassette recorders around the den to record what might
happen...the first signs of audio interests. I had also spent some hard
earned money (bussing tables, lawns, studio gaffer) a few years later
on audio. I also attempted to push my Dad into some better gear. When I
was a kid, we had Toby speakers, a Technics table, and a Pioneer
Receiver...and a few cassette decks (Naks) and reel to reels (Technics).
When I inherited my own room at 13, (my sister had graduated early
and was off to the Dick Rhodes School of Music at 15) I had a Crown Amp
and pre, and some UREI Monitors that I saved from be thrown out of our
friends studio. They were fronted by an Otari reel to reel and a
Technics record player, and one of the Nakamichi decks. The rest is
lost to memory.
When I was 11 or 12, they started calling me Little Leonard, after the
jazz historian and producer, Leonard Feather. It was about that time
that my Mom was singing in the Fairmont Lounge...actually she was
subbing that night for a friend. Carmen McRae was in the main room. On
her break, she came over to get a drink and heard Mom singing in the
bar. Carmen was the antithesis of subtle. At the end of the ballad Mom
was singing, Carmen yelled from the back of the room, "who the f^&*
are you!! I haven't been thrilled like that in 20 F%&%**in years"
She came to the stage, hugged Mom, and told her that she was coming to
our house for lunch the next day. She had a way of doing that. While
this was transpiring, I was at my table in the main room waiting for
Carmen to return to the stage. I was perturbed that night, (you can get
edgy when you’re 11 and have free reign of your Shirley Temple
in-take). Carmen was copping Nat Cole's piano licks.
I was a knight at
the Nat Cole Trio round table...a fanatic who would love and defend
Nat’s trios both pre and post vocals, till now anyway. Later when we
met, Carmen donned a pseudo maternal tone, (which fit her like a snow
plow) and asked me if I liked the show. Being both too young and too
stupid to recognize her tribute, not to mention the woman’s potential
ferocity, I lit into her for copping those licks with all the disdain
and energy that someone who’d had 7 Shirley Temples might muster. She
looked at my parents bemused, and said, “What is it?” Still that was the
beginning of a dialogue and a closeness that we shared until her
passing decades later.
Joe Williams and Norman Simmons also left a mark. A great mark. It is a
sad fact that I attempted to impress certain young ladies by telling
them I’d written a this or that song in their honor. Often stolen were
tunes from the little known and out of print album (at that time), Joe
Williams Sings About You. Hormones and desperation are my only defense.
To me, this album was and is, a glorious piece of ballad work that
deserves it’s place among our finest. That it was initially eschewed by
the public was always a thorn for Joe. They had him pigeon holed as a
blues man. I guess he could sing the blues about only singing the
blues. Still, he was much more than a any one type of singer. He was
that rarity.; a story teller, who could tell both large and small tales.
The public came around years later.
Joe first met my Father when his
pianist took ill, and Dad was called in to play. Joe couldn’t believe
it. Dad knew all of the changes from his lessor known ballads and so
forth. It was the beginning of a life long friendship that later
included my Mom. Joe and Carmen, travelled with cassettes of Mom and
Dad. They loved that...
So, Joe and his band (Norman Simmons was his pianist and musical
director until Joe’s passing) were at our home. I was told I could skip
school to hang out with guys, if I could get it past the school
administrators. By then, I was in high school. I went early, and asked
my Vice Principal, Opal Smith, with whom I flirted daily (no principal
should look like Opal.) if it was possible. I explained that I didn't
get to see them often and that I loved Joe's ballads, and that surely it
was educational in some sense. The rest of the story is off of the
books, but Norman ended up marrying Opal's best friend, and I got to
drink beer with the guys.
A few years later, my Father passed. Joe and Norman came to town. Joe
took me to lunch, offering condolences and wanting to know it I needed
anything. I didn’t know what to say, save to thank him. I think I
asked him some inane questions about women in an attempt to find a soft
landing from the currents of emotion.
About this time, I had a job in a studio owned by a good friend of my
Father’s, Arnett Peel. I learned my way around equipment while working
ungodly hours and sleeping in studio B. Our house had been sold. There
were money problems. If you’re broke, you may as well be broke near
your dreams and perhaps a beach.
So I hopped a train and became a cliche’...another starving writer in
LA. After nine months of working three jobs, trying to write, and
sleeping on a love seat at my sister’s apartment, the phone rang. It was
Carmen. I hadn't been in touch because I didn't feel I needed another
witness to my strife. I suppose I was embarrassed. Of course she
couldn’t have cared less. "When were you gonna call me, after you'd
been here a fuckin’ year? Why do you think I have such a big God Damned
house. Pack your shit and get over here. I have a gig tomorrow in DC and
I've gotta show you how the alarm works."
It was a life savor. Both my Sister and her roommate, Natalie, were out
of work, and I had started an affair with Natalie, a situation for
which I received no small amount of disdain from my Kelly.
The time was ripe to move uptown. Carmen’s was a magical time. Her
digs were on Summit Ridge Drive. A very nice Beverly Hills address.
From a love seat and a sore back, to living next door to Fred Astaire.
It was a split level 3 story with a pool and views...very Frank Lloyd
Wright in it’s design. She took me into the house, and showed me down
some stairs and said, ‘No one has stayed in this room since my Mother
passed in 72. You know you’re special.’ From the dust in the room, it
was apparent no one had been in there. There were sliding doors to a
tiny patio that over-looked the hills. There was a bed...a really nice
bed in comparison to the love seat or the prior couch in Studio B.
Upstairs there was a sunken living area with picture windows that
bordered the built in seating in a square that over-looked the canyon
and hills. And of course a piano, and a great kitchen. Carmen loved to
cook. There was a pool and patio off of the dining area. It was a
very interactive and social design. Centered at the entrance, was an oil
painting of her dear friend, Sarah Vaughan
Carmen was famous for being a woman with edges, for being hard. She was
hard, but that wasn’t all she was. I think about what she had seen in
life. Being a young girl pianist playing intermission at Minton’s for
Bird, Diz, and Monk while they figured out Be-Bop up in Harlem. Or
being the only woman with 26 guys on a bus for 32-48 weeks at a time.
She better be hard. She also had questionable taste in men...or as she
might say, ‘questionable, nothing questionable about those mother’s.’ I
hope that her taste in women was better. She was a woman of great
talent, great inequities, and great complexity. She had thrown out her
last borders for using a metal spatula on her no-stick pans.
During my time there, she sang and played for me a few times, but only a
few. Mostly, she was subjected to my playing album after album from
her prodigious collection. She hated it when I played her, but she had
so many albums that I couldn’t find. I love the album she recorded at
the Dug, in Japan, singing and accompanying herself. You can get it on
cd now, or perhaps even streamed. It’s a classic. The reissue is called
As Time Goes By, Carmen McRae Alone, Live at the Dug.
Living there also opened up the music of LA. I was down to 2 part time
jobs and could make time. Getting to hear Jimmy Rowles and John Heard
every Tuesday night at Linda's on Melrose was supreme. Jimmy and his
wife Dorothy were very kind to me. He called me Sterling Jr. and I
called him Adolph, after the actors Sterling Hayden and Adolph Menjou.
There'll never be another Jimmy Rowles. If anyone out there has that
bootleg of his solo playing, I'll give you my car for a copy. Jimmy had
loved my Dad’s playing and was with, Al, Joe Pass, Doc Severinsen, and
Carmen, among those who wrote the liner notes to Dad’s posthumous solo
One night at the Light House, Gene Harris, Ray Brown and JJ Johnson
changed what I thought was possible. I ended up sitting with Peri
Cousins, (a very talented woman who was also had been Bill Evan’s
girlfriend, for whom he wrote Peri’s Scope) and we both just held on.
When they played Lil Darlin, deathly slow, you could hear a pin drop.
The House Camp Down!!
Despite a lot of the good that happened in LA, all the great listening, I
always identified myself as having more of an East Coast rather than
West Coast mentality. I also just liked to move around. Couldn’t help
I soon found myself in Philly. I ended up helping to open and working at
Zanzibar Blue. It was a great jazz bar and restaurant (jazz on one
side, food on the other) owned by Robert and Benjamin Bynum. Their
Father had owned a jazz club in the 60's in Jersey, so they understood
how to create the right ambiance for music.
Philly has such great live and accessible music. Tony Williams (the
Honorable, a world class alto player) Gerald Price, Eddie Green, Shirley
Scott, Arthur Taylor, Ms Justine...Those rhythm sections could cook. It
was a very popular venue, and luminaries often stopped in... Also,
during this time I taught a jazz history class.
But the bug to move was never far away, and after 4 years I was off to
Florida, to ‘not work’ for a year and get some writing done. There I
met Meredith D'Ambrosio and her husband Eddie Higgins. They were playing
at a health-food store in a strip mall of a sort. I had never heard of
Meredith. I was just walking by and heard this voice singing the verse
to Spring is Here. Nobody knows that verse. Next thing I know I'm
sitting in front of raw veggies and some juice with my jaw on the table.
Meredith and I became friends. We actually wrote a some song lyrics
together, to Lullaby by George Cables. She lives an hour from me now and
we never see each other.
I've been in the Greater Boston area for 2 plus decades. I suppose the
bug to move subsided in some small way, or at least my ability to resist
it’s call. Audio has been a companion to my existence as long as I can
remember, along with architecture, wine and development. I had been to
real estate school prior to graduating high school. I took time off a
few years back to study yoga.. primarily hot hatha. As an x-athlete, (I
never did stop kicking that soccer ball) I needed something my bones
could handle and it turned out to be much much more than that. I have
friends here that I've known as far back as grade school, God Kids out
the ying yang, and feel more or less like a very lucky guy. I even
moved Mom up here. Her last recording to date was with Hank Jones, Marc
Johnson and Grady Tate...man can she sing. I'm hoping to get her to do
another one at some point.
It was after the yoga practice that my audio business came to be. I have
a tendency to picture a business in my head and do everything I can to
chisel it to form. I hope I'll be chiseling on this business for some
time. It's a lot of fun. We're preparing a reference system for Boston
Baroque, who earlier this year recorded the most digitally advanced
recording to date. That system will debut at the end of October, when
it's used to play back part of said recording to the Orchestra's
benefactors and season ticket holders. We're also doing headphone
stations for their concert season and for other concerts, like Madeleine
Peyroux's upcoming show. We hope to do the same for the BSO, and
several other musical events in our area. Anything to keep the music
close, and hopefully to share and honor it. Once it’s in you, well,
it’s always there. After all, the first portable player was your mind,
the rhythm of your movement, and the harmonies between you and the
world. If you keep those in place, the rest is gravy.
the capital Audiofest I met one of the top experts in the field of personal
listening. His name is Fred Crane and he is the proprietor of
Stereodesk a Boston area boutique that specializes in mainstream and
exotic headfi and two channel.
I was amazed at not only his cool products but his knowledge base on all things headphone related.
a leading reviewer of high end audio equipment I am though no expert in
headfi. Visiting Fred's booths and rooms I saw products I've never
heard of. We are talking totally exotic... like an $80,000 headfi set
Fred's story is amazing and he tells it right here!