Entering her nineties, Barbara Carroll could boast that she had been playing piano for over 85 years.
Not without a pause to sleep and eat, obviously, but with a determination that might suggest such extremes. Born Barbara Carole Coppersmith, she began the instrument at only five years old and went on to classical training three years later, eventually graduating from the New England Conservatory. In terms of professional stagecraft, her initial training ground was a USO tour during World War II in which she was part of an all-girl trio. This was quickly followed by leading her own trio on New York City's famous lane of jazz, 52nd Street, where she adopted a variation of her middle name, Carole, as a stage name. The pianist was associated with such fine players as guitarist Chuck Wayne and bassist Clyde Lombardi, but what would develop into an extensive discography began in 1949 with a recording session backing up multi-instrumentalist Eddie Shu for the Rainbow label.
Among female piano players, Carroll was known as the first to venture into the progressive bebop style that was especially associated with Bud Powell. Unlike the infamous Billy Tipton, Carroll also did not think it was necessary to hide the fact that she was a woman in jazz -- but this was New York City, not Oklahoma or the state of Washington. Not that Carroll had an easy time in a genre dominated by men. "People tended to put you down before they ever heard you," she commented. "If you were a girl piano player, the tendency was to say: 'Oh, how could she possibly play?' You never even got a chance to present what you could do. But then, if you did prove yourself, it almost became a commercial asset, in a sense; you were regarded as unique."
One audience that found Carroll to their liking was the high society crowd, becoming enamored with her during an extended run at the ultra-chic Embers supper club. Her group at the latter venue included the bassist Joe Shulman, whom she married in 1954. Carroll did not ignore the pop styles of subsequent decades, yet always managed to keep a strong jazz flavor present in whatever material she performed. If swing was a bay leaf, it would be said that Carroll had a large bush growing right outside her kitchen window. She recorded for many of the best labels in the genre including Verve and Atlantic and continued to be in demand at clubs and cabarets into her nineties, playing a regular gig at Manhattan's Birdland venue until December 2016. Carroll also worked as an actress on occasion, such as the Broadway play entitled Me and Juliet. She died in February 2017 at the age of 92. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi