Dedicated to Women Guitarists and Bassists

The Legends: Carline Ray

February 1, 2017
Written by
Jamie Ludwig
Text by Robert Moore

Throughout her 67-year career, jazz vocalist, guitarist, and bassist Carline Ray remained a creative force in an often male-dominated genre.

Ray (April 21, 1925- July 18, 2013) was born in Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance. Her father, Elisha Ray, was a Juilliard-trained bass, tuba, and euphonium player who eventually became a postal worker after failing to maintain steady work as a musician.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Carline Ray is in top row, 3rd from L

Ray followed her father’s footsteps to Julliard, enrolling at age 16 and graduating in 1946 with a degree in composition. That same year, she joined America’s first integrated all-woman jazz and swing band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, as a rhythm guitarist and vocalist. The groundbreaking ensemble was formed in the 1930s at a school for needy children in Mississippi and went on to provide women in jazz with a national platform before disbanding in the late 1940s.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm with Ray on guitar

As jazz trends shifted from multi-piece swing bands to smaller ensembles, Ray transitioned into a career as a backup vocalist and studio bassist (her preferred instrument was the Fender Precision Bass), with collaborators ranging from acclaimed composer Leonard Bernstein to popular crooner Bobby Darrin. Amid her prolific recording career, she found time to further her studies, completing a Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 1956.

Due in part to an increasing interest in jazz history and women’s studies, Ray’s profile as a live performer raised in the late 70s. On the festival circuit, she became a mentor to young musicians and a valuable source of information for scholars. In 1997, over 50 years after making history with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she co-founded all-woman trio Jazzberry Jam.

Ray remained active until the end of her life. Her lone solo album Vocal Sides, produced by Ray’s daughter, jazz vocalist and former David Bowie backup musician Catherine Russell, was released posthumously.

For her pioneering role in a seminal women’s jazz ensemble, professional versatility that spanned parts of seven decades, and passion for music preservation, Carline Ray is a legend beyond gender or genre. Indeed, she’s among the unsung greats of modern popular music.

Carline Ray interview Girls in the Band, featuring footage of Hazel Scott

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