The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Dynamic Diva

Dynamic Diva

Versatile East Bay jazz legend Faye Carol is still performing after more than 30 years; today, she also helps local children reclaim their musical heritage—and their pride.

Faye Carol doesn’t waste any time making herself at home. Ascending the bandstand at Anna’s Jazz Island in downtown Berkeley on a Saturday night last December, she slipped off her gleaming black high heel shoes, closed her eyes, and let her rhythm section’s swiftly flowing groove wash over her. Leaning into the microphone, she swayed gently and unleashed a soaring wordless vocal line that filled the room.

Rather than scatting, she put flesh on the bones of a spiritual written by saxophonist Howard Wiley, “Come Forth to the House of the Lord,” a tune that’s part of his ongoing investigation into the music that sustained prisoners at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison. Her husky voice rose and fell with his thick, breathy tenor sax, a soul-drenched outpouring that built to a glorious crescendo. It was a bravura performance, and Carol was just getting started. Backed by Wiley, bassist/composer Marcus Shelby, pianist Marco Casasola, and drummer Jeff Marrs, she turned “Silent Night” into an unsettling dreamscape as the band churned in double time behind her, and transformed “My Favorite Things” by interpolating a verse from Jobim’s bossa nova standard “Corcovado.”

The Bay Area has long boasted one of the most vibrant collections of jazz vocalists in the country, second only to New York City in its depth and variety of singular talents. For more than 30 years, Berkeley-based Carol has reigned as one of the region’s most versatile and exciting singers, an artist described as “dynamic” so often that it’s become her official tag.

“In terms of entertainers in the tradition of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, Faye is perhaps the best entertainer on the West Coast,” says Mal Sharpe, the pioneering radio provocateur, trombonist, and champion of traditional jazz. “She comes out and does a show more like something you would have seen in the 1950s or ’60s. Faye energizes the band. She loves music so much. She’s ignited by these songs. When she comes on stage, her presence electrifies everything.”

Carol can croon soul and standards, scat hurtling bebop lines, and deliver torch songs with scorching intensity, but everything she does is steeped in the blues. Her latest album, Faye Sings Lady Day, is a tribute to Billie Holiday recorded live at Yoshi’s featuring her daughter, pianist Kito Gamble, bassist Marcus Shelby, saxophonist Howard Wiley and drummer Darrell Green. It’s a consistently vivid, hard-swinging session that captures the emotional insight and timeless wisdom of the greatest jazz artists.

“The truths that those people told are still truths today,” says Carol, who slyly responds “timeless” when queried about her age. “If it’s humorous, poignant, sexual, a commentary on the times, the human condition just don’t change.”

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Over the decades, Carol has seen musical styles come and go, and she’s never been above taking from the best and incorporating new songs and grooves into her repertoire. But the extravagantly gifted vocalist is rooted so deeply in the bedrock of African-American music that there’s never any doubt about where she’s coming from.

Weaned on gospel in the Deep South, Carol came of age musically in the mid-’60s, performing on the thriving East Bay R&B scene. As effective interpreting standards associated with Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer as she is belting the blues of Bessie Smith and B.B. King, Carol infuses whatever she sings with the consoling, celebratory air that pervades the blues, music created to make hard times bearable.

Born in Meridian, Miss., Carol started singing as a young child. When her family moved to the East Bay town of Pittsburg, she found a comfortable niche in the youth choir of Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church. By the time she graduated from high school, she was established in the Black Diamond district, Pittsburg’s once-hopping strip of blues and jazz clubs catering to soldiers from Camp Stoneman looking to party.

“I grew up in an ideal kind of situation,” Carol says. “I don’t have no story to cry about. Nobody abused me. My mother was as close to Betty Crocker as anyone could be. My sister and I had a very good upbringing. We had birthday parties. I went to church and had good friends. I was just taking everything for granted. I’ve been singing all my life.”

A talent contest victory at the Oakland Auditorium in the mid-’60s led to steady work with veteran East Bay bluesmen like Johnny Talbot, Eddie Foster, and Johnny Hartsman, who took her out on the Bay Area R&B circuit. When musical tastes started changing in the mid-1970s with the rise of disco, Carol was well prepared to move into San Francisco’s vibrant cabaret scene, where she won an avid following in gay circles.

“They knew all the show tunes, and I didn’t have to struggle to convince people the songs were great,” Carol says. “I gained a lot of friends in that community. Singing in black clubs I was often going against the grain. R&B was king, and that’s all the music they would hear. I worked in cabarets for nearly 10 years, pre-AIDS, and right when AIDS started striking, that whole scene fell apart. It took all my great friends.”

It was a neighbor who first introduced the teenage Carol to the great singers and instrumentalists of an earlier era. She had grown up listening to the same soul and R&B hits everyone else was listening to, but when she went around the corner to visit Martha Young, the niece of legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young was listening to Billie Holiday.

“She played me Lady Day and told me about her uncle,” she says. “And at first I couldn’t hear Lady, because I was so into Aretha and Mahalia, Sam and Dave, and Ray Charles. You just like what you like. I heard Barbra Streisand and I always loved her. I really wasn’t hip to anything else other than Patti LaBelle, James Brown, and Otis Redding, and all those others on the Motown and Stax record labels. My ears wasn’t so accustomed to Billie’s sound, because she wasn’t a belter. Your ear had to go to it, and if you didn’t have the patience to sit and listen you might miss out. Well, I had the patience to sit and listen, even though I didn’t hear it right away.”

With the decline of the R&B scene, Carol started taking more jazz and cabaret gigs, forming The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol and Her Trio, a band that showcased her vast range. In the ’90s she teamed up with her daughter, a collaboration documented on the 1997 album The Flow (World Stage Records) featuring the esteemed drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Marcus Shelby.

Shelby was so deeply impressed by Carol’s sound and presence that years later, when he started to compose the music for his epic double album, Harriet Tubman, he drew on her voice for inspiration. Carol is featured throughout the album, singing the role of the fearless abolitionist with absolute conviction. Since recording the project in 2007, Shelby has worked extensively with Carol, including accompanying her on a tour of Italy last summer, exposure that’s only increased his respect for the singer.

“She’s probably one of the most underrated and underappreciated talents,” Shelby says. “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as her. Her rehearsals are more intense than most gigs I play on. It’s changed my whole approach to this process. She’s got this wonderful understanding of the history of the music, and she’s always looking to share it. She surrounds herself with young, hungry musicians, like Betty Carter and Art Blakey and Billy Higgins did. She’s a continuation of that spirit.”

Carol decided to record the tribute to Billie Holiday after years of performing a popular and effective show designed around songs associated with the legendary jazz singer. She doesn’t try to imitate Lady Day’s sinuous behind-the-beat phrasing or the dry timbre of her voice. Rather, Carol taps into the oft-overlooked defiant streak that ran through Holiday’s work in the 1930s and ’40s. Since Holiday recorded such a wide swath of material, Carol cherry-picks her favorites.

“She was like Louis Armstrong,” Carol says. “She sang every song in the world. I really do love Cole Porter a lot, and I try to capture all of that with her in mind, tying some of my favorite composers to Billie.”

But Carol’s musical world can’t be contained by Lady Day. She’s already planning several new albums, including a collection of holiday songs and a blues session. And when her schedule permits, she offers workshops for vocalists interested in any musical style (see www.fayecarol.com for details).

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Back at Anna’s Jazz Island, Carol turned the already intimate space into her parlor, effortlessly displaying just about every facet of her expansive creative vision.

Always looking to give other musicians a chance to shine, Carol showcased her superlative sidemen, whose respect for the singer came through in their razor-sharp dark suits and ties. Carol cut a more dramatic figure in black leather pants and a bright red jacket over a black satin blouse, though her most striking feature is her trademark fingernails, which extend a good three inches from her fingertips.

What made the evening quintessential Carol was the way she transformed a disparate audience into an impromptu community, inviting to the stage a 12-year-old girl she’d been mentoring through Music in the Community, her after-school program at the Black Repertory Group. The youngster wasn’t a prodigy, but she quickly brought the audience onto her side with her plucky self-assurance.

Sometimes it seems like Carol has mentored half the young (and not so young) players on the scene. She first started teaching in the late 1980s at Oakland-based Jazz Camp West, an eight-day immersion camp held annually in La Honda. But in recent years her Music in the Community program has helped introduce East Bay children to music history.

“She’s teaching the kids, which is beautiful,” says saxophonist Howard Wiley. “I remember coming down to a rehearsal and they were singing all types of music. One girl brought in an Anita Baker song. Then they broke out and sang a version of Miles Davis’s ‘Four.’ I was taken aback. That’s a hard tune, and they were swinging and in the pocket. She brings documentaries down, so they see Ella and Sarah Vaughan. That’s very empowering. If you don’t know who Charlie Parker is, you’re not going to check him out.”

Initially funded by the California Arts Council, the program has continued for the past three years through Carol’s own sweat and determination (and, she says, with the support of the Black Repertory Group). As she sees it, her mission is to help introduce youngsters to their own culture.

“Just for them to have pride,” Carol says. “They don’t know anything about their culture. You can’t feel the pride if you don’t know about it. The disconnect is mainly because they’ve never been exposed. The media has taught them that you shouldn’t listen to older people. We know about the fatherless situation. We know about how the funding is for the public schools. But I can’t worry about what the state is doing. Somebody has to step up and say, these are our kids.”

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Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.

Faces of the East Bay