Joan Carroll has been singing professionally for 30 years, but she’s still not sure why she does it.
Shy and self-effacing by nature, Carroll demonstrates none of the exhibitionist impulses that compel performers to jump on stage. Even after countless gigs and plaudits from the likes of legendary bandleader Terry Gibbs (father of former San Antonio drummer Gerry Gibbs), Carroll finds herself filled with dread before each show.
“I get really nervous and scared, and it’s hard, says the 52-year-old Carroll. “I still don’t know why I sing. But once I get up there and start singing and working with the musicians, I relax. I guess that’s why I do it.”
Carroll recalls that her earliest public performances, at late-’70s San Antonio clubs such as The News Room (on San Pedro), required her to down at least three drinks at the bar before she could work up the nerve to ask if she could sit in with the band.
Carroll’s reticence might make her an unlikely performer, but it also explains the impeccable care she puts into her craft. She says, “I’m one of these real weird people where I have to be ready and everything is going to be perfect, and I go over and over and over it.”
Carroll’s gift is that she makes the painstakingly rehearsed seem effortless and the carefully planned feel spontaneous. Seeing her onstage for the first time is a bit like finding the town librarian fronting a jazz band and dishing out some of the hippest phrasing and most fluid scatting you’ve heard.
In fairness to Carroll, she works, not as a librarian, but as a bookkeeper for sheet-music outlet RBC Music. “If anybody needs any kind of sheet music, they come to me because I’ve got
everything,” she says with a laugh.
The eldest of five children, Carroll was born in Columbus, Ohio and moved to San Antonio at the age of 12, when her father, a television program manager, took a job at KMOL. She spent much of her childhood observing television production and remembers appearing in a potato-chip commercial. She and her family even got some air time in a holiday special, Christmas in the Air, that earned her father an Emmy Award.
Her mother possessed a fine singing voice and loved big-band music, but family obligations prevented her from pursuing a professional singing career. Joan’s earliest musical memories involve her mother playing her big-band records and educating her about swing-era singers. Carroll, like most of the kids in her age group, gravitated to pop radio and learned to sing harmony by sharing parts with her sisters on Beatles songs.
When Carroll moved to Houston after graduating from high school and dabbling in higher education at San Antonio College and UTSA, the idea of singing professionally seemed remote to her. “I was in choir at school, but I was always a real bashful kid,” she says.
In Houston she took a job at Cactus Records and befriended the store’s resident jazz expert, who she found to be “very cool.”
“I was asking him about singers in jazz and he picked up this Betty Carter record `What a Little Moonlight Can Do` and said, ‘You need this.’ So that’s where it started.”
The “it” that Carroll refers to is her subsequent fascination with jazz, and her devoted study of the form’s best singers. These days, she’s playing the role of jazz educator, with a Saturday morning radio program on KRTU (91.7 FM) that celebrates the genre’s greatest singers such as her personal favorite, Shirley Horn.
For years, Carroll sang with local variety bands, taking way too many requests for “Proud Mary” and “Margaritaville,” but ultimately she decided to focus exclusively on jazz.
She studied scat singing with Kyle Keener and Ron Wilkins, who took her rich, dulcet voice and pushed her to new heights of harmonic
“Kyle helped me learn tunes, because I needed that,” Carroll says. “He would go with me through solos and get me to listen to what other people are doing and try to do that kind of thing when I was singing. Ron had me sing scales and say the notes’ names in all the different modes. It was crazy! I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not like I’m a trombone player.’ But it’s good to do that. It trains your ear.”
Carroll’s melodic precision, and her equally impressive feel for emotional nuance, is best showcased on Boplicity, one of her two albums with the band Footprints. To hear her shift from the whimsical leaps of “Monk’s Dream” to the torch heartbreak of Laura Nyro’s aching “I Never Meant to Hurt You” (an unrecognized classic for which Carroll provides a definitive rendition) is to marvel at the range of her talent.
On February 21, Carroll reunites with her old friend Gerry Gibbs for a gig with his Thrasher Big Band at Blue Star. Gibbs moved to Los Angeles two years ago, but he and his father have invited Carroll to California for occasional recording sessions and gigs, including a big-band convention where she sang with Terry’s Dream Band.
She’s also preparing for the April release of a new album by The Accidental Trio, an offbeat jazz group featuring Matt Dunne on guitar, Mark Rubinstein on French accordion, and Carroll on vocals.
“Matt gets a lot of concert gigs and I think we did something at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center,” she recalls. “He wanted to have Mark Rubinstein on accordion and a few other people. But nobody showed up except the three of us. And it turned out well.”
Their eponymously titled debut album — recorded by UTSA instructor Rubinstein at the university’s dowtown campus studio last August — includes the demanding jazz nugget “The Peacocks” (best known as an instrumental on Bill Evans’s You Must Believe in Spring album), Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me,” and The Beatles’ “Good Night.”
Perhaps predictably, Carroll feels most at ease singing in the recording studio, away from the glare of the stage lights and the attentive eyes of a live audience.
“I know some singers who don’t like recording, but, man, that’s my favorite thing,” she says. “I just love that. You can hear yourself really well, everybody kinda knows what they’re doing, and it’s really comfortable. That’s why I like it.” •
Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Big Band with Joan Carroll
7pm & 9:30pm Thu Feb 21
Blue Star Brewery
1414 S. Alamo