Before the Newport Jazz Festival staged its first concert back in 1954, pianist Barbara Carroll was playing in the nightclubs on 52nd Street in Manhattan. It was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and she shared the bills with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker. Today, she's 86 years old and still performing.

Carroll just released a new CD, and Jeff Lunden has this profile.

JEFF LUNDEN: Every time Barbara Carroll takes the stage to start a set, her longtime bass player, Jay Leonhart, watches her intently.

JAY LEONHART: She gets on the stage and all of a sudden, the moment - what's going on in the audience, what's going on with her - it just sort of comes. I mean, she'll sit at the piano and that little pause that sometimes piano players like to take before they play - you know, that sort of dramatic pause - well, she really uses that.


LEONHART: It's like she's summoning up something from inside her to tell her OK, where are we going? And it always tells her very clearly what to do.


LUNDEN: Barbara Carroll has been summoning those inside impulses for a long time, since she was a girl in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was studying classical piano when heard Nat King Cole on the radio.

BARBARA CARROLL: That was it. It was as if a light went on in my head. And I knew that's what I wanted to do. But nevertheless, I continued studying classical music for about 10 years. And I'm glad I did because that gives you some technical ability to play whatever it is you are able to create. You know, whatever is in your head, you have to have the facility to do it.


LUNDEN: When Carroll broke into jazz in the late 1940s, there weren't a lot of women.

CARROLL: Females were not accepted in the jazz world. You know, chick piano players were not the thing. You were automatically prejudged; you were no good 'cause you were a female. But of course, that was not only true for jazz and music, it was true for doctors and lawyers and everybody.

LUNDEN: But Carroll got a gig at the Downbeat Club opposite Dizzy Gillespie's big band.

CARROLL: Wow. For a little girl from Worcester, Massachusetts, that was heaven.

LUNDEN: Her career was launched. And with the exception of a decade off to raise her daughter, Carroll's been a regular on the New York jazz scene ever since.


STEPHEN HOLDEN: She has fingers of steel. She can play as well now as she could in anytime in her career, really - as fast and as intensely.

LUNDEN: New York Times critic Stephen Holden says Barbara Carroll's style is distinctive because of her classical background.

HOLDEN: But it's still very, very jazzy. She is likely to interpret Bach into something as Charlie Parker into something.

LUNDEN: The centerpiece of Barbara Carroll's new album is a medley of Gershwin tunes all linked together by a quotation from Gershwin's "Concerto in F."

While she's primarily known as a pianist, Carroll sings from time to time. On the title track of the album, Carroll speak-sings Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?"



CARROLL: (Singing) I was taught that I ought not expose my inner senses. Had no plan for a man. I was full of self-defenses.

CARROLL: I really don't consider myself a singer, as such. You know? I would like to consider myself a storyteller. That's the way we who don't have a lot of voice get around it, you see.


CARROLL: We call ourselves storytellers. If we can't sustain a note successfully, that's because we're just telling a story.

LUNDEN: Critic Stephen Holden says it's his favorite tune on the record.

HOLDEN: She has become, in her later years, a kind of exemplary parlando stylist, which was the style of Mabel Mercer - a kind of a talk-sing, which gets very, very deeply into lyrics. And she does it with her particular personality and her particular approach to a song, which is light-hearted but by no means frivolous.

CARROLL: (Singing) How long has thing been going on?

LUNDEN: Bass player Jay Leonhart thinks this is going to be going on for a long time to come.

LEONHART: Right now she's at her peak, musically. And I suspect she's going to go on for quite a while. We'll be talking about her four years from now as the most amazing 90-year-old pianist ever. And she will be, you know, 'cause she takes care of her ealth and she takes care of herself physically. And she's just doing great.

LUNDEN: At 86, Barbara Carroll says one thing she doesn't do is practice every day. And she doesn't rehearse her band, either.

CARROLL: There is no discussion, no rehearsal. It just happens. Either it happens or it doesn't happen, you know?

LUNDEN: And it keeps on happening, every time Barbara Carroll sits down at the keyboard to summon her muse.


LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

YDSTIE: You can hear full songs from Barbara Carroll's new release and complete coverage of this year's Newport Jazz Festival live, at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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