Barbara Carroll’s still evolving career as a jazz pianist began when she played her first New York engagement opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the Downbeat Club in 1947. A thrilling if a trifle unsettling debut for a young female pianist from Worcester, Massachusetts who began playing the piano at five and who’s family was wise enough to give her lessons that provided her with a basic knowledge of classical technique.
Classical or not what she leaned to was jazz, much of which she heard on the radio. Her early idols were Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum. At fifteen she had absorbed enough knowledge to form her own trio and play local dances and the like. This enabled her to save enough money to enroll in Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music when she was seventeen.
By 1947, Barbara was in New York looking for work – no easy thing when there was a decided prejudice against female musicians. A friend arranged her first New York booking under the name “Bobbie” Carroll, never mentioning gender until it was too late to get anyone else. Her playing proved impressive enough so that an agent told her that if she could put together a trio he could book her into the Downbeat Club where the major attraction was the great Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. She quickly made believers out of her fellow musicians who came to hear Dizzy and stayed to be impressed by this young girl pianist. The Barbara Carroll Trio became a family affair when she married her bass player Joe Schulmann, an alumus of the Claude Thornhill and Glenn Miller Army Air Force bands.
Another club date in 1947 added to her exposure when she played at Georgie Auld’s Tin Pan Alley, a musicians hangout in New York. It was while playing at Auld’s that every now and then a young singer from Astoria would come in and sing. Thus began a lifelong friendship with Tony Bennett. It was during this time that Leonard Feather, one of the leading jazz critics of the era, wrote “She is the first girl to play be-bop piano. She displays the new sounds rhythmically and melodically in her jump stuff but also makes intelligent use of them harmonically in her relaxed, pretty ballads.”
During the late 40’s and early 50’s Barbara played clubs in NYC, Chicago, Detroit, LA, and San Francisco. Perhaps the two most significant engagements of this period were at The London House in Chicago and The Embers in New York where on her first engagement she shared the bill with her idol Art Tatum.
In 1952, adding another influential dimension to her career, Barbara appeared with her trio on Broadway playing in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet.
After its debut album on Atlantic Records in 1951, The Barbara Carroll Trio recorded extensively in the 1950’s for RCA and Verve. During this period Barbara also began television work, especially The Today Show with Dave Garroway. One such performance had her accompanying the great Billie Holiday (whose pianist had not shown). “A little nervous making” Ms. Carroll recalls, “but an all time thrill.”
Barbara did not play publicly very much in the 1960’s. After the untimely death of her first husband in 1957, she married agent and photographer Bert Block in 1960 and had a daughter, Suzanne. In 1978, she was booked into the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle hotel for a two week engagement – and stayed for twenty five years. It was at the Carlyle that she began to feature her singing as an integral part of her performances. Reviewing her Carlyle engagements, Time Out Magazine called her “The cool, jazz player and the epitome of elegance”.
During this period honors began to come her way. First came the Kennedy Arts Center Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award in 2003 followed the next year by the JVC Highlights in Jazz concert honoring her career and featuring friends and colleagues Bill Charlap, Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Billy Taylor, and Tony Bennett, and in 2005 the first Mabel Mercer Award and the Award of Distinction from the National Arts Club.
Following her 25 years at the Carlyle, she is well into another long run in the famous Oak Room at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, making a significant and successful effort to incorporate jazz playing into a cabaret venue. Other recent engagements have included concerts at Philharmonic Hall in Naples, Florida, the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, concerts at the Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as well as twelve sold out performances at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. So, although the venue has changed since she began playing in New York opposite Dizzy Gillespie on 52nd Street , the music has remained the same: expressive, swinging jazz.