The film opens with an elderly woman filmed from behind. She walks slowly through a parking lot, stabilizing herself by placing her hands on parked cars. Her breathing is audible and labored. When she reaches the doors of the grocery store, she nearly walks into the exit, mutters an expletive, and then turns around towards the camera. At this point, only those who knew her during the last years of her life would recognize her. But then she introduces herself to the store manager. She is Carol Sloane, and she is surrounded by a film crew who are creating a documentary about her life. Her mission at the store is to retrieve her cane, which she left in a grocery basket. After she is reunited with her walking stick, the manager asks her “Are you famous and I just don’t know it?” She replies that if he’s a jazz fan, he might know her. He claims to like jazz, but it becomes quite clear that he does not know her by name or her work. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many jazz fans, as Sloane’s roller-coaster career kept her name out of the jazz press for years at a time. The new, award-winning documentary “Sloane: A Jazz Singer” (now being shown in film festivals) may give Sloane the recognition she deserves, even though she is no longer here to receive it.
As the opening credits begin, Sloane’s former lover and pianist Jimmy Rowles appears in a vintage film clip as he introduces “our lady”. She is considerably heavier in this 1981 concert, but when she sings “Never Never Land” without any accompaniment, there is Sloane’s voice, pure and clear with flawless pitch and immaculate diction. And later, as various musicians, critics, and friends offer soundbite quotes about Sloane’s greatness, we hear her voice in the background while a parade of film clips and photos pass before our eyes. The voice is remarkably constant, but the images differ so much that we could be looking at several different women. Further, it seems hard to believe that the frail woman we met walking to the grocery store could be THE Carol Sloane. Then we cut to that same woman singing the trumpet parts to classic Count Basie charts while the original recordings play on her computer. The voice is the same, and this indeed is Carol Sloane. At the time of the filming, she was 82 years old and one week away from recording a live album at Birdland. The CD would be her first album in twelve years and her final testament.
During that crucial week of preparation, Sloane told her life story in front of the cameras: her start as a 14-year-old in the church choir, her early exposure to great Black jazz vocalists through late-night radio broadcasts, her burning desire to move to New York City (and the job as vocalist with the Larry Elgart band which got her there), her introduction to Jon Hendricks, and a seemingly prime showcase at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. By Sloane’s admission, there weren’t many people in the seats that Saturday afternoon, but the right people were there—jazz journalists (including Dan Morgenstern) who praised her in the press, and representatives from Columbia Records, who offered Sloane a recording contract within a fortnight of the festival. In the documentary, we see Sloane put on a pair of headphones and listen to an old vinyl copy of her first album. However, on the soundtrack, we hear the original Voice of America broadcast of her Newport set, and thus we witness what impressed those influential audience members: Sloane singing the verse to “Little Girl Blue” without accompaniment, and holding the tonal center so that she would still be in the same key when the rhythm section entered. It was considered a daring move by others, but Sloane thought nothing of it. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t believe that she deserved a contract with a top record label. As the elder Sloane continues to listen to her debut recording, tears run down her face, and she finally takes off the headphones, and says about herself, “I haven’t heard that woman’s voice in a very long time.”
That quote may be the key to this film and to Sloane’s career. The voice was consistent throughout her professional life, but the depth of her interpretations grew exponentially as she experienced many setbacks and difficulties. Her ascendancy coincided with that of another new member of the Columbia roster, Barbra Streisand. While Sloane was featured on many of the talk and variety shows of the day, including “The Tonight Show”, Streisand’s star eclipsed Sloane’s, and because of her success on Broadway, it was Streisand, not Sloane, who got the high-budget albums and the TV specials. The arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones further sank the possibilities for jazz in general, and as the clubs shuttered their doors, Sloane found it increasingly difficult to pay her bills. Eventually, she took a secretarial job in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sang occasional gigs at a local club called the Frog and Nightgown. One night, Jimmy Rowles was booked at the club, and Sloane was encouraged to sit in. The couple fell in love and moved in together. Rowles’ dependence on alcohol caused the relationship to sour, and in a final act of desperation, Sloane attempted suicide. With the help of Rowles and a neighbor, Sloane was rushed to a hospital and her life was spared. However, after breaking off the affair, Sloane’s money issues returned.
Meanwhile, the bartender at the Frog and Nightgown, Stephen Barefoot, decided to start his own jazz club. Sloane returned to North Carolina to help Barefoot run the club and hire the talent. The club thrived for a while but closed within a few years. During another fallow period, she connected with Boston club owner Buck Spurr, who gave her gigs and became her husband. Sloane enjoyed her best years with a recording contract with Concord Jazz and more live performances, but Spurr’s failing health caused her to pause her career again. After Spurr’s death, she started singing occasional concerts through the encouragement of several friends including pianist Bill Charlap.
The 2019 Birdland engagement was one in a series of those occasional performances, and at the time, there was little reason to believe that Sloane would not continue these gigs for years to come. She was scheduled to perform again at Birdland in mid-March 2020, and for a time, I was planning a trip to New York to hear her sing in person. Of course, the pandemic canceled all live performances, and after suffering a major stroke in June 2020, Carol Sloane’s career was over. She lived long enough to see the release of the Birdland CD and to approve the final edit of the documentary. On January 23, 2023, she passed away at a nursing home in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
The documentary, directed and edited by Michael Lippert, is a magnificent tribute to Carol Sloane’s life and career. Her dedication to the art of jazz singing comes through in every interview, and in a touching sequence, we see her passing on her knowledge to a group of college jazz students. The final section of the film captures the performance at Birdland, and in a brilliant touch, Lippert includes the entire performance of “I’ll Always Leave the Door a Little Open”, which illustrates Catherine Russell’s point that Sloane’s interpretations keep listeners riveted from beginning to end. The song, which sounds like it was written with Sloane in mind, summarizes the entire film with its tender and wise lyrics:
When I was young, the world was full of treasures
And every star was shining just for me.
So many prizes, so many pleasures,
All my tomorrows still to be.
But as the saying goes, time can fly so fast,
The bud becomes the rose, and roses never last.
We can be thankful that this film and dozens of recordings remain to celebrate the art of Carol Sloane. She put her life into her songs, and we are forever blessed with the results.