Over the past two decades of the NYSD, we’ve published dozens of biographical notes and portraits of writers, artists, performers and individuals of prominence whose presence exemplifies the talent and creative greatness of life in this great city. Looking back on the passing parade and its impact, we’ve decided to review and share at least some of them in a separate column.
Today’s subject is the remarkable jazz pianist Barbara Carroll who left us a few years ago but whose memory remains defined by the pleasure of her recordings of the 20th century American Songbook.
February 13, 2017. I learned early last evening that Barbara Carroll, the great American jazz pianist and cabaret artist of the last seventy years, had died here in New York, after a brief illness. She had celebrated her 92rd birthday, two weeks ago on January 26th.
Barbara was a very good friend and a longtime friend, to me, and to many. She was a woman who kept up her friendships. For example, she and her friend Sylvia Syms, considered by Frank Sinatra to be “the world’s greatest saloon singer,” talked every night by phone, when they were back in their apartments after their gigs. Until one night in May in 1992, when Sylvia was performing at the Oak Room in the Algonquin, and she died. On stage.
Heaven was blessed, was how her friend Barbara put it on hearing the sad news. She’d lost a great friend. As did I, and many others today.
I first knew of Barbara Carroll from a three CD album called “The Ertegun’s New York: New York Cabaret Music,” a collection of recordings of several major cabaret performers, all of whom had been recorded by Ahmet Ertegun on his Atlantic Records label. That was in 1988. I remember it well because right after I’d bought the CD and was playing it frequently. Lisa Drew, the editor of the Debbie Reynolds book I’d written, was in Los Angeles to help us edited the final manuscript, and was staying with me. One night after dinner I told her about this album I’d been listening to a lot, particularly one artist, a woman named Barbara Carroll.
“Oh, Barbara Carroll,” Lisa responded, “she’s a friend of mine.” Lisa’s brother had been a music critic for a Milwaukee newspaper and whenever he came to New York to cover the scene, he always wrote about his favorite, Barbara Carroll. Coincidentally, at that moment Lisa told me the story, Barbara happened to be playing at the Westwood Marquis Hotel over in Westwood. So we went over Westwood to see her. When Barbara took her break, we were introduced.
After that first meeting, we began an occasional correspondence, and I’d see her when she came back to L.A. to play the Marquis, and we’d lunch or dine on her night off.
Barbara Carole Coopersmith grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. I grew up sixty miles west, and we shared the New England sensibility as kids who dreamed of going to the big city (New York) to make our lives. That was part of our original bond. Talking about music and her career one day, she told me that as a teenager who was already planning to make a career of her music.
In 1947, when she was twenty-two, the girl decided to come to New York and seek her fortunes as a jazz pianist. In those days, the city was still loaded with jazz joints, jazz clubs which were a big part of the draw of Manhattan nightlife.
She took the professional name Barbara Carroll. The gentle softness of the sound of it reflects its owner perfectly as a person, and as an artist. In 1947, there were not a lot of women jazz pianists working. When she found an agent who would send her out for gigs, he suggested she go as “Bobby Carroll” because he knew the bookers wouldn’t hire a female jazz musician, piano or no.
So she’d show up for the job and the manager would tell her, he was waiting for a Bobby Carroll, to which she’d reply, “I’m Bobby Carroll.” Oh.
Whatever disappointment the manager might have had in learning her true gender, it quickly passed because the girl was good and her music was hot, and sweet, like her heroes and heroines. Leonard Feather, composer, producer and music journalist of the great era in American jazz, declared that Barbara Carroll “was the first girl ever to play bebop.”
In 1948, she had her own trio with Chuck Wayne on guitar and Clyde Lombardi on bass. They did a brief gig with Benny Goodman. The kid from Worcester was in with the masters and she was only 23.
Her style of pianoforte was as gentle as her demeanor. Her power on the keyboard, however, was something else. She had played the ivories for eight-five years. Her dexterity, her touch was strong and as gentle as was the lady playing.
The guys in the trio changed. Charlie Byrd replaced Wayne and Joe Shulman replaced Lombardi. In the early 1950s, the trio worked on Broadway onstage in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Me and Juliet.” Barbara married Joe Shulman in 1954. Three years later he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was thirty-three. She was 29. A few years later she married agent and bandleader Bert Block with whom she had an adored daughter, mother of Barbara’s grandchildren.
When I came back to New York to live in the early ‘90s, Barbara was playing the Bemelman’s Bar in Hotel Carlyle, a gig she’d held since the early 1980s. It wasn’t an easy room for a gentle jazz pianist usually without a bass for support. Nevertheless legions of longtime fans returned to the room frequently for years just to quietly revel in the wit and romance and jazz she produced night after night, often competing with the cocktail audience until the later hours when everyone had settled in for her. During the seasonal breaks at Bemelman’s, Barbara toured, playing several engagements across the country, beginning in Palm Beach and ending in Los Angeles/Westwood.
As sophisticated as she was as an artist and in her style and manner, that New England upbringing kept her very grounded. She was a very stable, serious girl who loved all culture and especially the theatre and the concerts. She lived her life simply, no matter how comfortable. And the piano was always played and played and played.
I was surprised when she turned 90. I hadn’t ever thought of her in terms of age. She was older than I but her youthfulness was so entirely in her spirit, that she had no age; she was just a wonderful friend. In the last few years, she’d grown vaguely frail. It wasn’t as if it were sapping her energy because her innate elegance prevailed. She was playing Birdland on weekends, as well as occasional concerts both public and private. I saw her at Birdland last year. She gave an hour or ninety-minute concert, with her great friend and long time accompanist Jay Leonhart on bass.
She was a very slender woman who always wore her hair in a chignon. She never drank. Only an herbal tea. She ate small portions, and always good food. Because of that, or perhaps with the help of that, she lived and worked up through the 93rd year of her life. She worked (when she could get the gigs) for SEVENTY YEARS! Think about that. Worked. Not fiddled on the keys but got out there did the shouting. That is work.
She was indefatigable, always gracious, kind, sensitive, and she Loved music. She started playing when she was eight and by the time she was a teenager — the late 1930s when radio was in bloom — she used to walk around the house saying she wished she had been born black. It upset her Jewish mother so much she’d respond to her daughter, ‘what’s wrong with us?’ She laughed at the memory of those days.
The African-American jazz musicians were her heroes and heroines. Her masters. She was just a lovely lovely person, like an angel. And when she sat down at that keyboard, and looking it over as if to say, what’re we gonna do today, are you ready for it?’ she’d touch a note, and then another, and then begin to gently riff, falling into a tune, taking us with her. She recorded several albums on the afternine label. I keep several on my iTunes. It’s easy to fall under her musical spell, and let her take you to another place.
Barbara is survived by her daughter, her grandchildren and Mark Stroock, a long time friend, and fan, and companion whom she married several years ago. Her relationship with Mark, who is a couple of years her senior, and always devoted to her and her art, came as a great and wonderful surprise gift to her. She’d been living alone for years, since the death of her husband Mr. Block. After the death of Mark’s wife of many years, he found solace in Barbara’s piano. That transformed into a deeper friendship and eventually marriage and a boon to both. And a joy.