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Carla White: 1951-2007
Carla White

Born: 1951 in Oakland, CA
Died: May 9, 2007 in New York, NY

Jazz vocalist and educator

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2007 Todd S. Jenkins

"Success, to me, is making the time to cultivate not only your talent and gifts, but being present in the moment and living your life with kindness and compassion for yourself and everyone you come into contact with. In terms of my career, success is playing with the musicians I love to play with in situations where the audience is receptive and appreciative." - Carla White, 1951-2007

Carla White, one of the most impressive jazz vocalists of recent years, succumbed to breast cancer on May 9, 2007. She was 55 years old.

Born in Oakland, California, Carla moved to upstate New York with her family as a small child. She spent a great deal of time absorbing her parents' record collection, falling in love with jazz while in junior high school. During and after her school years she studied music, dance and drama, including time at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her artistic education was broadened further as she traveled around Europe and North Africa in her twenties. On her website White said of that experience, "I traveled in an old VW van with no planned itinerary. I went wherever I felt like going whenever I felt like going there. The one exception was Franco's Spain where I spent a night in prison for no reason other than being young and foreign. Everyday was a leap into the unknown. Now I satisfy my desire for adventure by leaping into a solo and exploring new musical territory."

Back home in New York, White began studying with pianist/composer Lennie Tristano, who had tutored a wealth of prior artists like Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Charles Mingus. The tutelage of Tristano, and later Marsh, reinforced her understanding of improvisation, which became one of her defining marks as a jazz vocalist. In addition to those influences, White began improvising along with classic jazz recordings by Charlie Parker, Lester Young and others. She carried that love of bebop and swing close to her heart throughout her career, interpreting tunes like Parker's "Bloomdido" and "Yardbird Suite" and Fats Navarro's "Fats' Flats".

In the early 1980s White partnered with trumpeter Manny Duran, performing wordless vocals in the bebop vein. Her first album, Andruline (Stash, 1983) was co-led by Duran and featured White's voice in a role much like a lead horn. She developed a completely unique style of scat singing, set apart from the usual free-flights of singers like Ella Fitzgerald, and gained wide critical acclaim for her creative approach. At the same time, she woodshedded with traditionally minded pianists like Ralph Sutton and Johnny Guarnieri while waiting tables at Hanratty's on Madison Avenue. This made a deep impression on her sense of swing and appreciation of jazz history.

White and Duran parted ways in 1985 as she began her solo career in earnest. Orient Express (Milestone, 1987) was lauded by a number of industry publications and marked a step forward in her style and confidence. Unfortunately, neither of White's first two releases has ever been issued on CD; perhaps her untimely passing will lead the labels to rectify those oversights. Next came Mood Swings (Milestone, 1988) with reedman Lew Tabackin and guitarist Joshua Breakstone. The selection of songs was a bit more adventurous, with Bob Dorough's unusual "Love Came on Stealthy Fingers" as a centerpiece.

Listen Here (1995, Evidence) brought White to the top of the jazz polls, sealing her position as one of the key jazz vocalists of the 1990s. Her lush interpretations of Dave Frishberg's title track, Dorough's "Devil May Care" and the Bricusse/Newley showtune "Feelin' Good" made this one of her best recordings ever. She kept up the pace with a consistent flair, culminating with 2006's A Voice in the Night (Bright Moon) with drummer Matt Wilson and trumpeter Claudio Roditi.

From the 1990s onward White toured the world as a featured performer at most of the great festivals. She also served as an educator, teaching programs at the New School, University of Northern Colorado, Vermont Jazz Center and some international academies. As a sideline, White worked as a voice-over artist in ads for such companies as Neutrogena, Estee Lauder, Toyota, BellSouth and Ethan Allen Furniture.

A memorial service for Carla White will be held at St. Peters Church at Lexington and 53rd St. in Manhattan on June 8th, 2007 at 5:00 PM.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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