Barbara Carroll, Pioneering Jazz Pianist and Singer, Dies at 92
By STEPHEN HOLDENFEB. 14, 2017
Barbara Carroll at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2011. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Barbara Carroll, the jazz pianist and singer who for seven decades was a beloved fixture of Manhattan night life, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death was announced by her husband, Mark Stroock.
A pioneer in a field dominated by men, Ms. Carroll was frequently introduced as “the first lady of jazz piano.” With her bright red hair piled high, she embodied a timeless bohemian elegance and artistic grace.
Until December, she had been performing regularly at Birdland in Midtown Manhattan on Saturday afternoons with the bassist and singer Jay Leonhart.
These musicales, which encompassed Bach, Ellington, Stephen Sondheim and Thelonious Monk and drew a cosmopolitan audience, represented the ne plus ultra of an all-embracing musical vision that connected and celebrated diverse musical cultures. A typical piece began as a floral spray of notes that led into improvised variations on mostly familiar songs, sometimes arranged as semiclassical pop-jazz suites. No performance was the same.
Behind it all was Ms. Carroll’s steady, unfailing sense of swing. Embracing everything from peppy minimalist bebop (she was one of the first female musicians to master that harmonically sophisticated brand of jazz) to Gershwin to a lush Debussy-influenced impressionism, she never forsook her jazz roots, and she maintained a strong attachment to the blues.
In midcareer, Ms. Carroll added singing to her repertoire and developed her version of the parlando style associated with Mabel Mercer, which treats lyrics as light verses with personal messages.
A devotee of the American songbook, Ms. Carroll seemingly knew every popular standard ever written. She was a major interpreter of Cole Porter and the team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, whose mischievously sexy come-on “You Fascinate Me So” was one of her signature songs.
In her later years, Ms. Carroll became known for her interpretations of Sondheim, putting her stamp on “Old Friends,” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” from “Anyone Can Whistle” — songs about friendship, love and the passing of time. “With So Little to Be Sure Of” was often directed to Mr. Stroock, her third husband, whom she married in 2011 and who was always at ringside when she performed at Birdland.
In addition to Mr. Stroock, a retired advertising executive, she is survived by a daughter, Suzanne Glatt, and two grandsons by her second husband, Bert Block, an agent and photographer, who died in 1986. Her first husband, Joe Shulman, a bassist who was a member of her trio, died in 1957.
Barbara Carole Coppersmith was born on Jan. 25, 1925, in Worcester, Mass., and began playing piano at age 5. Although she studied classical technique, she was irresistibly drawn to jazz on the radio. Her early piano idols included Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.
At 15, she formed her own combo and began playing at local dances; at 17, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
When she moved to New York in 1947, a friend arranged her first booking under the name Bobbie Carroll, never mentioning her gender until it was too late to get anyone else. An agent was impressed enough to book her into the Downbeat Club and Georgie Auld’s Tin Pan Alley, where the young Tony Bennett was also performing. The two began a lifelong friendship.
Another early admirer was the jazz critic Leonard Feather, who called her “the first girl to play bebop piano.” Throughout her career, Ms. Carroll championed other female pianists, helping them to make themselves heard in the male-dominated jazz world.
Ms. Carroll became a fixture on 52nd Street during its final years as a jazz mecca, and over the years played at most major jazz clubs in the United States. At the Embers, on the East Side of Manhattan, she once shared the bill with Tatum, which she likened to playing with God.
She appeared on Broadway with her trio in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Me and Juliet” in 1953.
Her first major recordings were for Atlantic in 1951, and she also recorded extensively for RCA and Verve. She appeared often on television, most notably on the “Today” show, where she accompanied Billie Holiday.
In 1978, Ms. Carroll began a two-week engagement at Bemelmans Bar in the Hotel Carlyle that ended up lasting for 25 years, during which she became close friends with Bobby Short, who played across the hall at Café Carlyle. When her relationship with the Carlyle ended, she reinvented herself as a jazz-oriented cabaret performer and acquired a growing international following.
Her last record, “Barbara Carroll Plays Birdland,” was released in December.
“I’ve led a charmed life,” Ms. Carroll said in