Profile in W. Royal Stokes’ ‘Growing Up With Jazz’
Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk about Their Lives and Careers. Oxford Univ. Press, 2005
by W. Royal Stokes
In her 1995 Madame Jazz: Contemporary Women Instrumentalists, Leslie Gourse included the chapter, “Carol Sudhalter, Role Model.” Were I devoting a chapter to this tenor and baritone saxophonist and flutist, I would add, “and Pioneer,” for Carol has been a pathfinder as a female instrumentalist and big band and combo leader in the male-dominated jazz world.
I first observed Sudhalter in performance at Umbria Jazz 2002, where she sat in on flute with violinist Johnny Frigo and pianist Joe Vita at Hotel Brufani and participated on tenor saxophone in a no-holds-barred lunch-time jam session at Ristorante La Taverna. I was much impressed with Carol’s lyricism and her instant compatibility with Frigo and Vita, two veteran musicians whom she had never played with before. At La Taverna she more than held her own in the company of five other reed and brass players, all men. Since then my admiration for her talents and artistry has increased, for I have observed her in a number of additional performances. In New York I attended several Sunday brunches at the Cajun Restaurant, where she leads the house quartet…It wasn’t long after arriving in New York in 1978 that Carol put together her own quartet of pianist Bertha Hope, bassist Kim Clarke, and drummer Paula Hampton and commenced working with it at Sonny’s Place on Long Island. She had before that been sitting in there, sometimes called up onto the bandstand by baritone saxophonist Turk Mauro. At Sonny’s she also met pianist Jack Wilson, who was instrumental in helping her record a 1985 album at that venue and was the pianist on the session, along with a drummer still in her combo, Tootsie Bean.
Impressed with how tenor saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas “put all the color and the chromatics and the nuances in,” Carol sought him out and studied with him. “He would have me memorize the lyrics of a tune before I’d be able to play it and repeat them to him and sing them. And then he’d say, ‘Now play it, thinking about the lyrics’ and, ‘Now play it, not thinking about the lyrics.’ Those lessons were just heavenly! They really put me on a certain path.
“Big Nick was a mentor to me because he was so encouraging and so interested in having me play right and use my energy right, not overuse it. He would have these really intense talks with me about everything and he agreed to play with my band any time I asked him, whether it was the quartet or big band. I know that was very generous of him. He didn’t have to do that, having the name that he did.”
Carol acquired a baritone saxophone in the early 1980s. “My feeling about the bari was that it expressed my female energy, where the tenor expressed my male energy. Now I don’t know if anyone else could make sense of that but that’s always the way I felt about it. And the flute was a whole ‘nother thing that was like my third arm or something. My style on flute is very percussive and so that’s just another energy. I recorded the tune ‘Hey There’ on the bari. I like to play ballads on it. Now I’m approaching it differently and trying to improve my speed on it. I took some bari lessons from Joe Temperley and he taught me a lot of things.” She also plays piccolo and has her father’s alto, which she doesn’t play regularly because “his sound really was so perfect, sort of a Marcel Mule perfect sound, not a sound you would want to get today in a band.” To play otherwise on her father’s alto than he did makes her feel like she is “committing a travesty — I’m brainwashed.”
In the mid-80s Sudhalter, having for years been checking out big bands, decided that Queens needed one and decided that she would have to be the one to found it. She got charts together, called musicians, and rehearsed the band.
“Big Nick, who was always part of Queens jazz history, naturally gravitated toward working with our band. In 1990 we got an arranger, Charlie Camilleri, who had written for Joe Henderson and Machito. He wrote tunes especially for Big Nick and arrangements for specific people in my band… I was profiled twice in Newsday with a photo of me and my baritone saxophone. We played all over Queens. We would work at the Forest Park Carousel. We always got grants for these concerts from Queens Council on the Arts.
For a dozen or so years now Sudhalter has occupied the saxophone and flute chair at the Cajun Restaurant’s noon-to-4 p.m. Sunday Jazz Brunch… Singer Myrna Lake, pianist Zeke Mullens, bassist Leonard Gaskin, and drummer Tootsie Bean are her musical companions at gig.