Veteran jazz vocalist and instrumentalist Carline Ray passed away on July 18, as a result of complications from a stroke. Noted as a bass player as well as a featured singer with big bands, Ray had celebrated her 88th birthday on April 21, 2013.
The vocalist had a long career that began in 1946 after her graduation from Juilliard when she joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated all-female group. She played rhythm guitar and sang. Later, she did the same with the Erskine Hawkins big band. She also played in bands directed by Sy Oliver, Skitch Henderson and Mercer Ellington. A classically trained vocalist, she sang with Schola Cantorum and was a solo voice performing and recording Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary Lou’s Mass” with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
In 2005 she received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award at the Kennedy Center and three years later, an International Women in Jazz Award.
Perhaps ironically, she had just released her first album as a lead vocalist, Vocal Sides, this past June. Produced by her daughter, jazz singer Catherine Russell, it serves as a memorable tribute to a truly great artist. Ray may have been 88, but you listen to her sing and you hear a voice filled with vitality. She has a rich contralto with the velvet warmth of aged brandy. Impeccable diction, joyful phrasing—you’d swear this was a woman in her prime. Vocal Sides is a parting gift from Carline Ray, a gift to remember her by.
The album’s 10 tracks and one bonus tune reprise the wide range of material—from spirituals to swing—performed over her long career. She begins with the classic “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” a tune that could well serve as the album’s personal manifesto. “Without a Song” ends the album on what would seem to be another personal note. In between, she scats through “Donna Lee” before swinging into an arch version of “Back Home Again in Indiana.” She does a simply elegant job on “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Her spiritual depth is clear, from the affecting honesty of her performance of works like Mary Lou Williams’ “Lazarus” and “Our Father” from the “Mass,” to her heartfelt take of Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” Daughter Catherine joins her for “Land Beyond the River” and the traditional “Hold On.” The bonus track is “Lucille,” a tune written by Ray’s husband Luis Russell for Louis Armstrong back in 1961.
Vocal Sides is a fitting monument to a consummate artist.