Carmen McRae, Miss Jazz
In recent years, we have stretched the meaning of the word diva. In the past, it brought to mind a female vocalist like Maria Callas; nowadays it encompasses much more. There are literary divas, culinary divas, you name it. While the word gets gets applied to different circumstances, the true essence of diva is still rooted in the musical world. Obviously, the great jazz singer, Carmen McRae deserves being referred to as a diva.
Carmen McRae, Miss Jazz, by Leslie Gourse takes a look into the art and life of this legendary performer. The focus, however, is not on the intricate details leading from cradle to grave, but on her exposure to and love of jazz music. Featuring segments from numerous interviews with McRae along with reflections by many artists who knew or worked with her, Miss Jazz provides an interesting look at the artist’s life.
Leslie Gourse is the author of several books on jazz, including Wynton Marsalis, Sarah Vaughan, and Thelonius Monk. She has a great appreciation for the music and is very familiar with the whole jazz menu. While her heart is in the right place, though, Miss Jazz offers a decent snack rather than a substantial meal. With just over a hundred pages of actual text, the book only hits the high points of McRae’s illustrious career.
McRae worked with the likes of Count Basie, Benny Carter, and Dave Brubeck. It wasn’t until later in life, however, that she really made a name for herself by recording as a solo artist. Her voice and performances placed her alongside contemporaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Annie Ross, and Sarah Vaughan. Miss Jazz shows not only McRae’s determination to be in this elite group, but her admiration and friendships with them as well.
One of the most effective sections in Miss Jazz deals with McRae’s association with pianist Norman Simmons. The reader catches a glimpse of how these two worked together to form a tight musical unit. They understood each other without going into lengthy discussions, which was ideal for pragmatic McRae. Here, Gourse also shows how demanding McRae could be with her musicians.
While some biographers might capitalize on a characteristic like this to give their book that nice Mommie Dearest touch, Gourse takes the more difficult road of being non-judgmental. Miss Jazz concentrates on McRae’s art rather than sensationalizing her life. This is not a sex, drugs and rock and roll (or in this case, jazz) book. Issues that are commonly exploited (in McRae's case, marijuana use, bisexuality, her demanding perfectionism) are treated in a matter-of-fact manner.
A disappointing side to the book results from the obvious errors. For example, the book states that Billie Holiday recorded for Vocalian records, which should be Vocalion records. The singer Carol Sloane’s name is spelled Sloan. Also, she mentions Richard Ellison, famous for his book The Invisible Man, which of course is Ralph Ellison, who was famous for his book Invisible Man (The Invisible Man was by H.G. Wells). These errors certainly don’t indicate that Gourse is unfamiliar her subject matter, they emphasize the need of good editors and proofreaders. In spite of its typographical mistakes, Miss Jazz does provide a decent introduction to the artistry of Carmen McRae—one of the great divas in the jazz world.