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Carline Ray, Singer and Instrumentalist, Dies at 88

Her debut album as a leader was released this year

Carline Ray and Catherine Russell

Carline Ray, a singer and pioneering multi-instrumentalist, died in Manhattan July 18. She was 88. The cause of death was not reported. Ray, who was the wife of the late pianist and arranger Luis Russell and the mother of singer Catherine Russell, was known primarily for her bass playing-she worked with Sy Oliver, Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and others during her career of several decades.

Ray was born April 21, 1925 in New York City. Her father Elisha Ray, was a musician and Carline studied piano and sang at a young age, entering the Juilliard School of Music at 16. At Juilliard, she learned acoustic bass and upon graduating in 1946 she joined the all-female, interracial International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, with which she sang and played guitar. She also sang and played guitar with trumpeter Erskine Hawkins’ band during that period. By the 1950s she was part of a female jazz trio, where she met Luis Russell-the couple married in 1956. During this period Ray learned to play the electric Fender bass. She was awarded a master’s degree in singing in 1956.

In addition to the above-mentioned artists, Ray performed with Ruth Brown, Melba Liston, Patti Page, Bobby Darin, Della Reese and others. As a choral singer she worked with Leonard Bernstein and Schola Cantorum.

She received the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award in 2005, and an International Women In Jazz Award in 2008. Ray is spotlighted in the documentary film The Girls in the Band.

The under-recorded Ray had vocal solos in two pieces on Williams’ 1970 release Mary Lou’s Mass, and released her debut album as a vocalist under her own name, Vocal Sides (produced by daughter Russell), this year. (The album also includes one demo recording made in 1961.) A profile of Ray (written before her death) will appear in the September issue of JazzTimes.

Originally Published