Meet Claiborne Ray

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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I considered all the radio singers carefully when I was about four and told my mother that I wanted to sing like Ella Fitzgerald, not Rosemary Clooney or Doris Day. She had to break it to me that it wasn’t that easy.
If you were a fan of the New York Times' long running Science Q&A column, you'll recognize the name of our latest Super Fan, who was its author for 31 years. And if you've been a frequenter of New York jazz clubs you'll surely recognize her from her ubiquitous presence on the scene, where she's rarely seen without her signature wide-brimmed topper. A night owl from infancy, according to her ex rodeo queen/classical musician mother, she was destined for a life of jazz and cocktails.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a retired newspaper editor; my last and best job was 10 years as the deputy obituary editor at the New York Times. I love English history and literature, cats, and staying up late (which, according to my mother, began in infancy). I was born in Clinton, Iowa, not far from Bix Beiderbecke territory, but grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, birthplace of Etta Jones and Bubber Miley.

My father was a chemical engineer and safety expert from Tennessee who played E flat alto horn. My mother was an ex-rodeo queen from Wyoming and a classical musician; starting in early childhood, she practiced an hour on the violin and an hour on the piano every morning before breakfast, at her mother's insistence. She earned a degree in music education from Northwestern, where she was a music school classmate of Kay Davis, but said she wouldn't have known her, as she was "only a singer," whereas Mother was a musician! She was a music teacher and junior high band director before she married my father, and returned to teaching years later, sometimes subbing for my band director when I was in high school. She was cursed with perfect pitch, and loved classical music, but told me as a child that most jazz musicians could easily play classical charts, while only a few classical players could swing.

My childhood was idyllic. We were in the middle of the middle class, living in a three-bedroom Cape Cod cottage in a nice town. But having seen Chicago as a very young child, I longed for the big city and the bright lights, so after studying modern European history at Vassar, I moved to brownstone Brooklyn in 1968, when it was still affordable, and got a job at a small financial paper.

You come by your love of music honestly.

My grandmother and her sister were both fine pianists, sent by train twice a month to Denver from their tiny hometown, so they could have lessons from a student of a student of Liszt. That grandmother, who married a rancher, played those left-hand Ravel pieces for fun, while her sister, who married a farmer, sneaked out of the house to play with a ragtime band at roadhouses before World War I, and ran a successful music studio in her basement for about seven decades. They both played for silent movies. I have my grandmother's pocket diary from 1913 and it lists all their gigs at theaters and dances. What's more, they played far into their last years, with my grandmother playing the organ at the Wyoming State Retirement Center in Basin, into her hundredth year. And my father's sister supported herself as a choral singer in New York for half a century. My mother's oldest brother was a virtuoso violinist who played with the Denver symphony when he was about seven, but he died in a wreck at 18. My surviving uncle went to the Naval Academy before he took over the family ranch, but played the viola for the rest of his life. As for me, I quit piano lessons in fourth grade, sick to death of the simplified version of "To a Wild Rose," but later I got to be pretty good on flute and piccolo. I also sang in the church choir but had a hard time holding a part if it wasn't the melody. I played in the marching and symphonic bands in high school, made the all-state band once, had serious lessons from Claude Monteux at Vassar—subsidized by my grandmother—and finally gave it up in early 1969, because I had to earn a living. But I still know enough music to know the way it ought to sound.

What's your earliest memory of music?

In my early childhood, people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were on the radio all the time. I thought Arturo Toscanini was some kind of relation, because we had to listen to him every Sunday afternoon. My father loved the Dukes of Dixieland, Guy Lombardo, Vaughn Monroe, and Phil Harris; my mother preferred Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Count Basie. They both liked Les Paul and Mary Ford, who had a 15-minute radio show every day. But the first music I actually remember beyond lullabies and nursery rhymes was on Dave Garroway's late-night Chicago radio show. He played a lot of jazz, and his theme song was "Sentimental Journey." The Art Van Damme Quintet was his regular on-air musical accompaniment. That would probably have been when I was still in the cradle, or at least in the crib. I considered all the radio singers carefully when I was about four and told my mother that I wanted to sing like Ella Fitzgerald, not Rosemary Clooney or Doris Day. She had to break it to me that it wasn't that easy.

How old were you when you got your first record?

My great aunt's basement music studio is where I learned every popular song beginning with Victor Herbert, and first heard recordings of Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson, and Fats Waller. Oddly, we had very few records when I was little, beyond children's 78 RPM records. One that I especially loved was a multi-disc album of the Jane Powell version of "Alice in Wonderland," made a year before the Disney movie. Other 78s I remember playing were some Perez Prado mambo records, which probably had Doc Cheatham on them, and April Stevens, a breathy singer my father liked, singing "I'm in Love Again." In eighth grade, I won a record certificate for best costume at a school dance and used it buy Ravel's "Bolero." That was a two-sided extended-play 45. I still have it.

The first LP I bought with my own money was "Duet," by Doris Day and Andre Previn, from the 99-cent rack at the drug store, when I was in high school. The CD version has extra tracks. The second one was a jazz version of all the Mancini tunes from "Peter Gunn." Then I fell in love with Bossa Nova and sent off for an imported record of Os Cariocas doing a bunch of Brazilian hits. The next one was the Skitch Henderson production of selections from "Porgy and Bess," with Leontyne Price and John Bubbles, the original Sportin' Life. I later got to meet Skitch Henderson at an Arbors Records jazz party.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

I am not sure how old I might have been when we started going to the community concerts at the junior high school auditorium. Third or fourth grade, maybe. My father was the one who made sure the piano there was tuned. The whole family went, except for my infant brother. I enjoyed it a lot! My mother made sure I asked pianist Ruth Slenczynska and violist William Primrose for their autographs. (Slenczynska is still alive, I believe. We used to keep track of these things when I was in the obituary department.) And I vividly remember going all the way (17 miles) to Augusta, Georgia, to hear the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

Jazz was just pop music, as far as I was concerned, and I liked what I liked without necessarily recognizing it as jazz. Basically, I shared my parents' tastes, especially players from their college years, like Benny Goodman and Jimmie Lunceford, and even my grandparents' favorites, like "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Student Prince." It was all good music. I never got far into rock 'n' roll. When I left for college, I bought a second-hand record player and realized that what I really, really liked was Benny Goodman and contemporaries. When I made it to New York and had a boyfriend with going-out money, I insisted on being taken to my first real jazz club, the old Half Note, at Spring and Hudson Streets, where we heard Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. By the end of the evening I was hooked. Later, I took my father there to hear Anita O'Day, another of his favorites, and the first date I had with my ex-husband was at the Half Note, to hear Zoot and Jimmy Rushing.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

I have been going out for live music since I was in college, but then it was usually for classical music. I got to hear Arthur Rubenstein in Newark that way and spent some time in the Family Circle at the old Metropolitan Opera House. The weekend of my junior prom, however, I was on a double date with a friend whose date was a "townie," and after the dance, we all went to a dive bar near the river in Poughkeepsie that had an organ trio. It felt a little risky but I had a great time.

After those heady nights at the Half Note, I spent several years with no time, no money, and no jazz-loving companions. And then when I joined the Times and had money in my pocket again, I had to work nights for years. Everything fell into place in the early-1980s. I finally had daytime hours, usually with a late starting time, and I found friends who loved jazz too. I heard Maxine Sullivan on WNEW and wondered who the great young singer was; it turns out she was nearly 70. And she was playing at Fat Tuesday's, with a group I had never heard of: the Scott Hamilton Quintet. A friend from work and I went the next night and were delighted! Then I went with a friend on a Holland America cruise. There followed more and more evenings at places like Zinno and the Village Vanguard.

In about 1985, at the dawn of the age of Internet research, I did a search for "Count Basie" and "died," looking for his exact date of death. The search also returned a couple of dozen great jazz musicians who had played with him and pre-deceased him, and I realized that a generation of swing musicians was dying off. That's when I started a systematic campaign to hear people I didn't want to miss.

You became a big fan of jazz cruises and jazz parties.

Friends in the travel business gave me a coupon for a big, fat discount on a cruise on the SS Norway, with Mel Torme as the star attraction. I recruited another work friend and off we went. The first people I saw onboard were the Scott Hamilton Quintet. Then Maxine Sullivan. Then Clark Terry, whom I recognized from the old "Tonight Show." Speaking of the "Tonight Show," they used to have a "stump the band" segment, and in the fall of 1967 I was in the audience and stumped them by requesting "I Lost My Heart in the Subway," which Rudy Vallee sang in 1934. I think Clark Terry tried a little "Mumbles" instead.

It turns out that was the second in a series of jazz cruises run by Hank O'Neal and Shelley Shier of HOSS Inc., and there were several dozen more jazz stars on board, including Kenny Davern, Al Gray, Eddie Higgins, Major Holley, Buddy Tate, and others. Clark Terry had his old big band arrangements in a suitcase, and the ship's own very good band had a lot of fun playing them. The next year the star was Joe Williams, and I think in 1987 it was Sarah Vaughan. I missed only a few years of jazz cruises. The one this past February may have been my last; I am sadly worried that the whole cruise business may have been fatally injured by all the stories of onboard infections.

I made some great friends on that first cruise, including the girlfriend of one of the musicians. When we got back to New York, she as good as ordered me to start going out to hear jazz as often as I could. She and her friends got me invited to my first jazz party, the one that used to be held at the Camelback Mountain resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then the original jazz party, Dick Gibson's Labor Day weekend marathon in Denver Through the years, jazz parties and friends lured me to Detroit; Minneapolis; Newport, California; Santa Fe; Bern, Switzerland; and Nice, among other places.

A group of us middle-aged jazz fans started going out very, very regularly. Major Holley called us the Golden Girls. And the more jazz fans I met, the more of them I came to know well, including so many of the AllAboutJazz Super Fans. I had a lot of lost time to make up for. Most of the Golden Girls have moved away or died. I miss them.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

Before the 2020 shutdown, I went very often, almost too often to admit, though not as often as in the mid-1980s, when I sometimes went out 10 nights in a row and frequently did a triple-header. That's when Bradley's was open till 3 a.m., as I recall; and, after all, I didn't have to start work at the Times until the afternoon. Now I have one untrustworthy knee, and too many of my favorite clubs are in basements: the Vanguard, Smalls Jazz Club, Mezzrow the cabaret room at Birdland, the Jazz Standard, etc. Don't get around much anymore. But even on a reduced schedule, I seldom skipped a week. My last triple header was on Sunday, March 1, of 2020: Marty Elkins at 55 Bar, George Coleman at the Jazz Standard, and Michael Kanan at Mezzrow.

Over the years, it became a sad joke among my friends that I would go to see some famous player or singer or tap dancer (another kind of percussion), enjoy them just once, and then they died. The list is ominous: Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Mary Osborne, Tiny Grimes, Emily Remler, Chuck Green, Martha Raye, several more. Now I am almost afraid to go to hear someone for the first time, because it might be the last.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

With jazz, you can count on hearing something that has never been heard before and will never be heard again.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

Every performance is different, and you never know when it will be special, when the players will catch fire from each other, or when a soloist will be inspired. Several players have told me over the years that they don't know when that magic will happen and that in fact it seems to come from someplace outside them. The first time I heard Tommy Flanagan play "Beyond the Blue Bird," I asked him if he had been working on the tune for a long time or if it just came to him. "It just came to me," he said. "I wish it had come a lot sooner."

What is the most trouble you've gone to to get to a jazz performance?

The farthest I have traveled and the most effort I put in would probably be the several times I went to the Grande Parade du Jazz de Nice, beginning in the summer of 1986, when George Wein was still in charge. There weren't many direct flights, so I usually had to take a train from Paris or Lyons; the hotel rooms were expensive; the packed city bus was the only practical way to get to Les Jardins de Cimiez; I had to remember to bring extra change and stand in line for the public bathrooms; and it took me a while to get smart enough to bring along my own folding chair.

Is there one performance that got away that you still regret having missed?

Late in his career Jimmy Rowles, one of my favorites, was scheduled to appear at one of the piano rooms in the Village. He kept canceling and never made it, so I never got to hear him live. And now of course I am missing all the concerts and gigs that got canceled by the 2020 shutdown.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Louis Armstrong lived well into my adulthood and I could have gone to hear him several times, but I never made it. I thought he would always be there. In a way, he always will be, but I wish I could have been in the same room with him. I missed Duke Ellington, too.

What makes a great jazz club?

I miss Zinno because of the relaxed atmosphere and the great food, and I miss the old Half Note because it was my first jazz club and every note was new. It had a great jukebox, on which I discovered Wes Montgomery. In recent days I have spent the most time at Birdland, where so many of my favorite people play. It has a wonderful staff and great sight lines. But my current favorite is probably Mezzrow, despite the single bathroom and the lack of anything but snacks. It's a little like Bradley's, a serious listening room. I love the marble floors, the intimacy, the audience, which is usually full of musician friends, and especially how happy the players are to be there and to really be listened to.

Pre-quarantine, which club(s) were you most regularly to be found at?

Birdland, Mezzrow, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, the Village Vanguard, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, the Kitano, Smalls, the Jazz Standard, 55 Bar.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

Zinno. It was the kind of place where you would run into Ram Ramirez, co-composer of "Lover Man"; Pepe Romero, who was a big fan of Gene Bertoncini; Michael Leonard, who wrote "I'm All Smiles"; and all sorts of interesting people I probably didn't recognize. Not to mention the many wonderful musicians who played there often, like John Bunch, Ray Bryant (who picked out the piano), Milt Hinton,Ruby Braff, Junior Mance, Joe Temperley, Jane Nossette Jarvis after she retired as the Mets' organist, Michael Moore, Benny Green, and Tal Farlow, just to scratch the surface of my memory bank.

The runner up would be Bradley's. It's where I first heard Tommy Flanagan, not long after he quit touring with Ella Fitzgerald. I can still remember that he played "A Bitty Ditty" and "Raincheck" that night.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

When we were all hanging out almost every night at Zinno and I was still getting to know the players, one night a curly-haired young man sauntered in, said nothing to anyone, sat down and casually started playing the piano while the band was on a break. Some nerve, I thought, just walking in like that. It was Monty Alexander.

How do you discover new artists?

I always ask the other musicians about who they have heard or enjoyed playing with. That's how I initially learned about Ehud Asherie, Gerald Clayton, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Rosanno Sportiello, even Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes in their youth, and mine. I'm sort of a moldy fig but eventually I catch up with the new stuff.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

CD's and radio. My vinyl collection is gathering dust because I need a new belt for the turntable. I don't think my friends are getting any money or fame through streaming services. I do find YouTube handy when I want to sample someone I've just heard of, or someone I'd forgotten about.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

The piano, because it would let me play with just about everyone else.

What's your desert island disc?

Just one? Maybe Benny Goodman's 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

Waves and waves of young people who just get it, and seemed to have absorbed every lesson from the ones who came before. Also, I buy all the CDs and I could build a second Great Wall of China with them, so I will take a little credit, too.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Unbearably lonely.

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