Carline Ray, an Enduring Pioneer Woman of Jazz, Dies at 88
Carline Ray Collection
Published: July 27, 2013
Carline Ray, a pioneering jazz instrumentalist and vocalist who joined the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s, later performed with Erskine Hawkins and Mary Lou Williams and this year released her first recording as a lead vocalist, died on July 18 in Manhattan. She was 88.
The cause was complications of a stroke, said her daughter, the jazz singer Catherine Russell.
In an era when female jazz musicians were rare, Ms. Ray was often the only woman in the band in a career that spanned seven decades and multiple instruments and genres, from calypso to choral works.
“She always made a point of saying she wasn’t a female musician,” Ms. Russell recalled. “She was a musician who happened to be female.”
Her mother was proud but also felt a constant need to prove herself in a world dominated by men.
“She would never let anybody help her with her amplifier or her bass,” Ms. Russell said.
Ms. Ray started her career surrounded by female musicians, though, as a member of a later incarnation of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated, all-female group that first formed in the 1930s at a Mississippi school for poor black children.
Ms. Ray had just graduated from Juilliard, in 1946, when she joined the Sweethearts, playing rhythm guitar and singing. A few years later she joined the band led by Mr. Hawkins, singing but also playing rhythm guitar. Later, when she married the bandleader Luis Russell, who had helped organize a group led by Louis Armstrong, she insisted that she continue performing, and she did.
Mr. Russell died, in 1963, when Catherine was 7. Ms. Ray kept playing, taking her daughter to recording sessions and performances. She spent decades as a session musician, playing an electric Fender bass at studios in midtown. She sang classical choral works, including performances of Christmas music conducted by Leonard Bernstein. She sang backup on recordings for Patti Page, Bobby Darrin and other performers.
Ms. Ray often sang and played bass with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, including in its 1971 production of “Mary Lou’s Mass,” by Ms. Williams, the pianist and composer. She also performed with big bands led by Sy Oliver and Skitch Henderson and, when it was under the direction of Mercer Ellington, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1980, she received a grant to study the upright acoustic bass, with Major Holley.
When interest in female performers began increasing in the late 1970s, Ms. Ray became a regular performer at women’s jazz festivals, and later in life she was a mentor to younger female musicians, including the bassists Nicki Parrott and Mimi Jones. She also played in touring and educational groups featuring female musicians, including Jazzberry Jam.
“She wasn’t out there waving the flag saying ‘I’m a woman in jazz,’ ” Sally Placksin, the author of “American Women in Jazz,” said in an interview this week. “She was just always out there playing.”
Carline Ray was born on April 21, 1925, in Manhattan. Her father, Elisha Ray, was a horn player who graduated from Juilliard the year she was born. He had played with James Reese Europe and had offers for more musical work but, seeking steady income for his new family, he took a job with the post office not long after he graduated.
Ms. Ray entered Juilliard at 16 and stayed five years, after changing her major from piano to composition. In 1956 she received a masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Ray is survived by a sister, Irma Sloan.
Ms. Russell spent several years working with her to choose songs and arrangements for “Vocal Sides,” her mother’s first recording as a lead vocalist.
“Her aim was not to be a front person,” Ms. Russell said. “She used to tell me that she wanted to be a part of something bigger.”