ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
Carol Sloane could scat with the best of them. Scat singing is when a jazz vocalist improvises with wordless syllables, creates new melodic lines and plays with rhythmic patterns.
When Sloane was 12, her parents gave her a transistor radio. She wasn’t into Bill Haley & His Comets or Elvis, who dominated the daytime airwaves. But at night—that’s when she discovered a whole different way of vocalizing and became steeped in the stories of these songs. And she got turned on to improvisation.
Sloane learned from the best, what she called “The Great Quartet”: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan.
“I was listening to Black women singing. And listening to their history, which came from the Black churches and the Blues.”
By 14 she was already performing and dreaming of living in New York according to Sloane: A Jazz Singer, a new documentary film that premieres Feb. 23 at the Santa Fe Film Festival.
What’s remarkable about her singing and musicianship is that she learned only by listening, first in her Catholic choir and later at the turn of her radio’s dial. She had uncanny pitch and never learned to read music.
Jazz enthusiasts in the Triangle may recall Sloane, as she lived and worked in Raleigh and Chapel Hill a few decades ago.
Stephen Barefoot, one of the executive producers of the documentary said: “She is so familiar to the area, not only from her performances but for her wonderful Sophisticated Lady radio show on Saturday mornings on WUNC, in tandem with Gary Shivers‘ weekly broadcast.”
Barefoot was friends with Sloane for 50 years, after meeting her at Raleigh’s underground jazz club The Frog and Nightgown, where he was a new bartender.
It was 1969 and Sloane was there to revive her career after the British Invasion drastically altered the reality of what kind of records would sell. They also performed in local musical theater together. She stayed seven years.
In the early ’80s, she was part of Barefoot’s own Chapel Hill club—Stephen’s, After All—which hosted many jazz greats because of Sloane’s connections. There are stills of the supper club in the documentary.
Directed and edited by Michael Lippert, Sloane: A Jazz Singer is a feature-length documentary film about this special jazz artist, who wanted to represent, excel at and preserve the tradition of performing from the repertoire of the “Great American Songbook.”
“She believed that in order to be great, you had to be educated about the history of the music. If you chose a song, you better know who wrote it, who sang it first, and what it means to you personally,” said Lippert.
Jazz critic and historian Don Morgenstern notes in the film: “What impressed me is how good she was at getting into the essence of a song.”
Barefoot recalls that Sloane, “never veered from the songs that spoke truth for her … I remember how upsetting it was to be informed that she would be putting the number ‘Caravan’ on an upcoming album: ‘I have never ridden across a desert on a camel! I cannot sing that song authentically. Why should I expect anyone to believe what I’m telling them?’”
Long scenes are in an interactive or participatory documentary format where Sloane has a “film crew occupying every square foot of her tiny apartment,” and following her around town. At the time of filming, she was 82. There are conversational interview parts and cuts to the past with archival sounds, images film, and B-roll.
At one point Sloane says she thinks she has 37 albums out and wants one more; a live recording at the legendary jazz club Birdland in New York. The film is punctuated by a countdown to this career-capping performance, starting six days before the club date.
When she performed for the first time at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in 1961, Sloane told the piano player she wanted to do the verse of “Little Girl Blue.” The pianist didn’t know the verse. This is how she tells it for the camera: “Just play an arpeggio in B flat and I’ll sing the verse a cappella.
“People didn’t do that. You didn’t sing a verse a cappella and be expected to be in tune when it got to the chorus,” Sloane continues without a hint of ego, although there’s an adorable frame of her holding a coffee cup with “Diva” across it.
It’s a touching section where Sloane listens to the song on her Columbia Records album, which came within weeks of her appearance at Newport. She can’t hold back the tears, saying, “I haven’t heard that woman’s voice in a long time.” An excerpt from the actual 1961 recording is also included.
Give a listen, give a watch:
“One of our executive producers went to the Library of Congress in a snowstorm to discover the original audio of Carol knocking everyone off their socks at Newport in 1961,” Lippert said.
Sloane recounts in the film that the first time she met Ella Fitzgerald, the woman she first heard on late-night radio. Fitzgerald told Sloane, “I know who you are. You’re the one who they say sounds just like me!”
Many considered her an heir to Fitzgerald. Yet, despite Sloane’s legitimate chops and wide praise and recognition, sustained success was elusive for her. She had several day jobs and moved a lot. She lived through not only tough times financially, but also escaped an abusive alcoholic relationship and survived a related suicide attempt.
Her career spanned 60 years. She opened for jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson at the iconic Village Vanguard in New York. She was asked by Jon Hendricks to be a substitute for Annie Ross in the famous Lambert, Hendricks & Ross trio.
Sloane performed on both coasts and internationally, appearing on the TV shows of Johnny Carson and Steve Allen. She shared the stage with notable jazz musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Clark Terry and Ben Webster. The Washington Post and The New York Times wrote favorably of her.
The driven jazz performer even found new fans in Japan and remained a favorite of jazz critics. She had several good years married to Buck Spurr and put music on hold to care for him later on.
The best way to honor Carol Sloane is to talk about the music she so loved and her craft in it because hers wasn’t just technical mastery, but a deeply felt personal interpretation of these songs. She sang from a real place inside. Here she is in the film, talking about jazz:
“Jazz is so filled with intelligent dialogue between the musicians and the singer and the audience.”
That is an artist talking, an interpreter of songs.
Director Lippert approached the film with the intent “to make an honest portrait, warts and all, that would offer viewers a complete person, both artist and human.”
“To me, it’s her humanity that’s so relatable … Then when you see her translate her life experiences into song, it’s truly transcendent, and means far more than just a skilled voice on a mic.”
Throughout, the documentary builds toward the climactic moment of Sloane’s performance and live recording at Birdland in Manhattan.
There are several moments when Sloane repeats her passionate desire to be one of the best. There are also moments expressing self-doubt and showing her struggles with back pain. At the same time, she’s insistent on showing the world she’s still got it. The camera zooms in on a small piece of paper stuck to her fridge that reads, “You are not too old, and it is not too late,” a phrase she uses as an affirmation.
Even at 82, Sloane’s grit in the film is visible—a quality she admired in Carmen McRae—in her love for the music and her tenacity.
As for which recordings to include in the film, Lippert shared, “Her set list at Birdland was a good starting point. Particularly her finale number, ‘I’ll Always Leave the Door a Little Open,’ because it was such a banner song that really reflected her own resilience and steadfast dedication to a career full of setbacks.
“But we also knew certain songs reflected turning points in her career; she was discovered with ‘Little Girl Blue,’ and she cemented a cappella masterdom with her medley of ‘Never Never Land’ and ‘My Ship,’” Lippert added.
Barefoot feels that “I’ll Always Leave the Door a Little Open” is, “the thematic narrative and theme song for the documentary. It’s how Carol existed—by never fully shutting that door.”
There is another little sign the camera finds: “Risk. Fail. Risk again.” This could be the motto of any creative spirit and it was Sloane’s.
Her final album, Carol Sloane: Live at Birdland, was released in 2022 and is available on Spotify.
The film ends with ample footage of Sloane performing at Birdland. She not only delivers but achieves what she states in the film:
“It sounds silly but what I want to hear is, ‘Miss Sloane, the house is SRO (standing-room-only),’ and then when I finish my set, I want vigorous applause and a standing ovation that I deserve, not only because it’s the fashion to do it, but because I really did earn it.”
Some of the most intimate filming is seen during the ending credits. Sloane is offstage at Birdland and many old friends and fans come up to her to give a hug, praise her, reminisce, laugh and share love. It’s a true validation of her talent and dedication.
Lippert isn’t fond of bringing cameras into small rooms, but Birdland had to be captured. “We had four cameras running, each one trying to get the best angle while also not ruining anyone’s night. My goal was to just get it all recorded, so it was not actually as emotionally affecting until I saw the footage later.”
Sloane: A Jazz Singer doesn’t have a public release date yet. Lippert hopes to see “Carol’s story exposed to wider audiences, so we are hoping that Santa Fe is just the beginning of a long festival run that ends with a distribution deal.”
To wit, the documentary is already an official selection of the CINEQUEST Film Festival.
Carol Sloane passed away on January 23, 2023. The cause was complications from a stroke. She was 85.
Barefoot, who was the instigator of the film and persuaded Sloane to do it, said that despite a roller coaster career: “Her sharp humor, her impressive literacy, her forever seeing herself in a lineage of musical storytellers who’d come before her and shaped who she was remained constant throughout her life.”
He continued, “There was no pretense. The Carol who went to feed her cats or who sat at the desk in Terry Sanford’s law firm was the same Carol who walked on stage at Carnegie Hall or The Frog and Nightgown or into the embassy in Tokyo or down those steps at Birdland. She was just in different clothes, with a different goal and different stories in her mind and heart … ”
Sloane concludes her Birdland set with “I’ll Always Leave the Door a Little Open,” which has an opening verse that is particularly poignant:
But I’ll always leave the door a little open
I love to feel the breeze that passes by
And though my dreams are few,
unlikely to come true
I’ll always leave my heart a little room to fly
“Sloaney,” as she was known to her friends, wanted to be one of the best—and she was.
UPDATE, Feb. 28, 2003: The film discussed in this article, Sloane: A Jazz Singer, has won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Santa Fe Film Festival.
Pamir Kiciman is a freelance writer, artist, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://my.visualcv.com/pamirkiciman or contact him by email: email@example.com.
It’s totally incomprehensible how can this lady be so presumptuous of the fact she was listening to black singers on the radio, then boast of not listening to Elvis when it was precisely Elvis who channeled the greatest gospel musician of the 20’s, Thommas A. Dorsey, in front of 54.6 million on January 6, 1957, at CBS. Then he did likewise with at least four DIFFERENT female singers on December 3, 1968, at NBC, namely the music and voices of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Darlene Love, Mahalia Jackson and Lavern Baker and he did this to an audience of 50 million viewers. Both were the two shows which garnered the largest audiences in 1957 and 1968 respectively. The fact she was “listening to Black women singing, and listening to their history, which came from the Black churches and the Blues” is neither here nor there, as this was via the radio. Presley was absorbing these same music mediums, PERSNALLY, in Tupelo churchs and at blues revivals, before he moved to Memphis at age 13.
Love her! My friends & I heard her at the Fairmont in SF several years ago. What a treat!
This is such a wonderful article about a wonderful local singer- when this film is released, please inform your readership. The clip of her debut song is stunning and I would love to hear more.