Saxophonist: Carol Sudhalter

by Jill McManus
June 25, 2000

Jazz saxophonist and bandleader Carol Sudhalter belongs to a select group of women who play jazz around New York City, and to an even smaller group who play tenor, baritone and flute. She leads her own quartet, as well as the Astoria Big Band, which she started in 1987.

For the past nine years, Carol has also been a member of the group that plays for Sunday brunch at the Cajun, a pleasant restaurant full of jazz memorabilia at 8th Avenue and 16th Street in Manhattan. The band, formerly run by bassist Jimmy Butts, who died in 1998, is now led by Butts’s longtime partner, the vigorous drummer and showman Doc Pittman. We visited the Cajun to hear Carol in mid-June.

Statuesque and elegant in a black sleeveless jumpsuit with gold trim, Carol walked through the room playing the baritone as the set opened. Then she took the gruff instrument through its paces on romping blues shuffles, and standards that included “Georgia on My Mind,” “Satin Doll,” and “Time After Time.” Her bright and energetic feeling makes the listener comfortable. Her scrolling bursts of melody are often sweetened by a touch of vibrato, and are nicely set off by well-placed commas in her phrasing. In fact, her sound on baritone sax brings to mind Harry Carney, the famous baritone player in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Though Carol didn’t play tenor sax that day, we knew from past hearings that her smooth, flowing sound on that instrument reflects the influence of Lester Young. On flute, her playing is melodious, soaring and happy, and she gives her tone a bit of an edge.

Solos in this band require concentration, as they are punctuated by Pittman’s ratchet-voiced reminiscences about jazz in the 1930s, and spirited exhortations to “Go, Carol, go!” Carol handles it all with ease, and a gracious smile. While backing the band’s excellent singer, Annette St. John, she is tasteful and supportive. Other members of the band that afternoon, besides Pittman, were Bill Gerhardt, who plays rhythmic, full-bodied piano, and Dmitri Kolesnik on bass. (Regulars Zeke Mullins, piano, and Leonard Gaskin, bass, were away.)

Carol is busy right now preparing for summer performances by her own Astoria Big Band at parks in Queens, including one on July 6th at the Astoria Park Great Lawn at 7:30 p.m., and another on July 16 at Gantry Plaza State Park at 5 p.m. Carol’s quintet will be playing the new Monday jazz series at Athens Square on July 17th, at 7:30 p.m.

Carol, who grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, comes from a musical family. Her father played alto sax around Boston, worked with the Eddie Duchin Orchestra, and had a radio program called The Voice of the Saxophone. Her older brother, Richard, is a jazz trumpet player and the author of several books on jazz. Her middle brother also plays sax, though not professionally.

Influenced in her teens by Rachel Carson’s eye-opening environmental treatise, Silent Spring, Carol decided to study entomology at Smith College, and wanted to become a biologist or a science writer. “I loved birds, insects, and watching nature,” she says. But drawn to the flute, and she began to express the emotions and the music that had been stored up inside her. After graduating, she studied at a conservatory in Israel, and later with a noted flautist in Milan for two years. Sometimes she had no money for food. Back home, she taught herself to play jazz by accompanying records, and attended the New England Conservatory, while she also explored free and experimental music.

But she stayed away from saxophone until she was in her 30s. “My father was a real perfectionist, with a perfect tone,” she says. “Pablo Casals had heard him play and sent him a note saying he sounded like a cello. The thought of playing sax never entered my mind until the day my father died.” She took up the tenor that year, and was soon working as the only woman in a Latin band in Boston.

Carol came to New York in 1978 to play with Latin Fever, an all-woman group led by Rita Harlow. She also formed her own quartet and played at events sponsored by Cobi Narita’s Universal Jazz Coalition, and whatever other jobs she could find. By the early 1980s, Carol was also becoming adept on the baritone.

In 1985, Carol recorded her first LP, Hey There( on her own label, Carolina Records) with Jack Wilson on piano, Glenn Richman on bass, and Clarence “Tootsie” Bean on drums. She founded the Astoria Big Band, and kept it going with the help of grants. In 1993, she was able to record the band live at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and to produce the album Who Will Buy? (also on Carolina).

Though playing jazz and classical music and organizing the big band are enough to fill most of her hours, Carol is active as a board member of the International Women of Jazz. She has also worked at times as a medical transcriber and a bi-lingual secretary. “I love languages – they’re my hobby,” she says. She knows Italian, French, some German and Hebrew, and is learning sign language. Several years ago she started her own booking agency called Mix ‘n’ Match Music, that provides music for parties. She also works at a school, where she gives job training to young adults who have a hearing impairment.

Cheer for this tall, talented and indefatigable New York musician!

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