Barbara Carroll was definitive. As an elegant pianist. As a sophisticated singer. As a beautiful lady. And like another great Lady, her good friend Billie Holiday, Barbara Carroll was down-to-earth and always swinging.
She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on January 25, 1925 and started playing piano as a child. She studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music, but only for a year. She wanted to play jazz, and, inspired by her idols, Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum, as a teenager Barbara was playing for real. By the latter 40’s, she was fronting her own trio, with Chuck Wayne on guitar and Clyde Lombardi on bass. Leonard Feather declared that Barbara was “the first girl ever to play be-bop piano,” and, though she encountered some prejudice about being a girl, this girl’s playing quickly impressed all of the boys.
In one of the liveliest scenes of jazz history, the clubs on 52nd Street, Barbara and her trio became mainstays. Her first gig at the Downtown Club spotlighted her trio opposite the big band of Dizzy Gillespie. One of her favorite stories remembered an evening when she was hanging with Charlie Parker. Bird said “you two piano chicks ought to know each other,” and introduced Barbara to Sarah Vaughan.
Another great singer was just getting started, working with his teacher on 52nd Street across from the clubs. “I was trying to become known as a singer,” said Tony Bennett, “and I used to go down and hear Barbara play.” When her trio was playing the club Tin Pan Alley, “she’d get me up to sing.” When he needed a pianist for an audition, Tony called on Barbara, “and we became great friends for years.”
Barbara reminisced about knowing Tony back then a few years ago when she played a Singers Unlimited brunch. And, just as she used to do 65 years earlier, she called up Tony to sing. “All The Things You Are” was an unforgettable surprise for all the WBGO Jazz Leadership Society members that Sunday.
Through the years on 52nd Street and into the 1950’s, Barbara and her trio played cabarets all across the country, including the London House in Chicago and a long run at the Embers in New York — where her first gig was opening for her great inspiration Art Tatum. In 1951, she recorded for Atlantic, her first of more than a dozen delightful albums. In 1952, she appeared on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet. Another regular gig was playing on the very new Today Show, hosted by jazz fan Dave Garroway, and on one memorable morning Barbara played for Billie Holiday.
In the early 60’s, her daughter Suzanne was born. Into the 70’s, Barbara was not working as much, but in 1978 Barbara was booked into Bemelmans Bar of the Hotel Carlyle. Playing opposite iconic Bobby Short across the lobby at Café Carlyle, Barbara and Bobby soon became fixtures of classic New York nightlife. John S. Wilson of the New York Times observed that at Bemelmans, along with being “a superb pianist,” Barbara “honed her singing,” possibly influenced by Bobby’s “outgoing style … but she also has something that Mr. Short does not have, an ability to be simple, gentle, and emotionally moving.”
After 25 years at the Carlyle, Barbara shifted to midtown. She played for a time in the Oak Room of the Algonquin, but in recent years she’d been playing the hippest brunch in New York, often with bassist Jay Leonhart, Saturdays at Birdland. Birdland owner Gianni Valente was with Barbara’s beloved Mark Stroock when she passed, Saturday, February 11th, at Cornell Presbyterian Hospital, just a couple of weeks after her 92nd birthday. “I lost a great friend,” said Gianni, “but we were happy that we’d just finished a new album, Barbara Carroll at Birdland.