Credit: Photo by Bob Bonis, from the Bob Bonis Archive

Sloane: A Jazz Singer  | Select virtual and local screenings

Stephen Barefoot had a listening post that many music lovers might envy. It was the mid-1970s and Barefoot, then in his late 20s, was tending bar at Raleigh nightclub the Frog and Nightgown.

Carol Sloane was onstage singing timeless jazz standards. Barefoot was entranced.

“It was the first time I’d ever really seen so up-close that relationship between the artist and the audience,” Barefoot tells INDY Week from his home in Durham. “People sitting at their tables were so intensely listening to her.”

Barefoot became a friend of Sloane’s and a steady fan. The decades passed.

Sloane: A Jazz Singer—a new documentary directed by Winston-Salem’s Michael Lippert, with Barefoot as an executive producer—follows Sloane as she prepares for her 2019 performance at legendary jazz venue Birdland in Manhattan. By this point, Sloane was in her early 80s.

In a 1998 cabaret review, music critic Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times that Sloane “may in fact be [Ella] Fitzgerald’s truest heir in the seamlessness of her style, which is at once swinging and insistently melodic. She never loses sight of a song’s overall musical shape. Modest almost to a fault, Ms. Sloane also never shows off.”

“What I sing is old-fashioned,” Sloane says in the film. “I really just have always wanted to be considered one of the best. I gained a reputation that I cherish. And I want to make sure that people understand I’m still viable. I’m not too old. And it’s not too late.”

Sloane: A Jazz Singer premiered on February 23 at the Santa Fe Film Festival, one month to the day after the singer’s death at a nursing home in Stoneham, Massachusetts, from complications of a stroke. She was 85.

There was a time when Sloane’s life as a singer was ascending toward the stratosphere.

She was born Carol Morvan in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 and began singing professionally when she was just 14 years old. When she was 18, she married Boston radio personality Charlie Jefferds, though the marriage didn’t last long. By the late 1950s, billed as Carol Vann, she was a vocalist with the Larry Elgart Orchestra.

In 1961, she sang at the Newport Jazz Festival. Within a few weeks, she was offered a contract with Columbia Records. She opened in nightclubs for comedians Lenny Bruce and Phyllis Diller. Richard Pryor opened for her.

“For a minute there, she was on The Tonight Show [with Johnny Carson] all the time,” filmmaker Lippert says. “She was doing gigs with Oscar Peterson, who was the top of the top as far as jazz pianists.”

But the musical and cultural landscape was shifting dramatically. For Sloane and many others in the jazz world, times were tough. Her career took a nose dive.

“She was born maybe 10 years too late,” Lippert says. “I think she came to prominence at a time in the early ’60s when rock ’n’ roll was really on the rise. And jazz was sort of fading from the mainstream. Carol could tell. She stopped getting calls.”

“Suddenly,” Sloane wistfully tells the camera in Sloane: A Jazz Singer, “it went away.”

Carol Sloane in a still from “Sloane: A Jazz Singer.” Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

In 1969, a talent agent that Sloane knew told her about the Frog and Nightgown, a nightclub founded by drummer Peter Ingram that was located, along with other music venues, at the Village Subway, an underground complex beneath the Cameron Village shopping center. (Cameron Village was renamed the Village District in 2021.)

“Raleigh, North Carolina,” Sloane recalls telling the agent. “They don’t have jazz down there, do they?”

She decided to give North Carolina a try.

“I didn’t want to go down there,” Sloane told the journalist Marc Myers in 2009. “I was certain I was going to have an awful time. But I needed the work. So I went down there anyway and wound up having a ball.”

Sloane performed regularly at the Frog and Nightgown for six years. For a time, it was the place to be. Ingram brought in big-name acts—including Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, and Charlie Byrd. “It was a golden time for Raleigh,” Sloane says in the documentary.

To pay the bills, she also worked as a full-time legal secretary in the office of former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.

In 1975, the Frog and Nightgown closed. Sloane returned to New York, where she met jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles and entered into a difficult, alcohol-infused relationship with him that led to a suicide attempt before she left him.

But then, in 1981, Barefoot—who had opened his own club, Stephen’s, After All—coaxed Sloane back to North Carolina. This new club, which he describes as “quite akin to the Frog,” was in Chapel Hill near where Whole Foods is located now. Sloane performed regularly at Stephen’s, accompanied by Paul Montgomery, who was the host for two decades of a children’s program called Time for Uncle Paul on WRAL-TV as well as an accomplished jazz piano player.

Sloane was the club’s public face and its talent booker. She had pull, and booked greats like George Shearing, Shirley Horn, and Betty Carter. They all came to North Carolina and performed at Stephen’s.

“She would call Carmen McRae and say, ‘You’ve got to come down here,’” says Barefoot. And McRae would.

Sloane, who lived in an apartment near Durham School of the Arts, also hosted a radio show on WUNC called Sophisticated Lady. She played recordings of the music she loved and occasionally did interviews.

But then, in another one of life’s unfortunate turns, Stephen’s, After All closed after only two years of operation. Jazz was still on the decline, and there just wasn’t enough steady business. The club was, Barefoot says, “heaven while it lasted.”

It was yet another moment of uncertainty in a life of such moments. Sloane’s life in jazz ebbed and flowed alongside the waning popularity of jazz as the decades advanced. It was a wild roller coaster of a life—perhaps one too dependent on a fickle entertainment business.

In Durham, Sloane lost her apartment and car. She couldn’t pay her utility bills. During her last several months in North Carolina, Sloane took refuge at Barefoot’s home.

“She was very lonely and very depressed,” Barefoot says. “There was nothing ahead for her. It got to the point where she would be up before I got up. I would walk in here and she would be standing in the kitchen with a little glass of scotch in her hand at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning.”

Sloane left North Carolina again, this time for the Boston area, and in 1986 married entertainment manager Buck Spurr.

“He was a sensitive, sweet, loving, caring man,” Sloane says of Spurr. Toward the end of his life, Spurr had a series of health problems, including dementia. Sloane left music to care for him. When he died in 2014, Sloane resumed singing.

Carol Sloane at a performance in “Sloane: A Jazz Singer.” Photo courtesy of the filmmakers. Credit: Photo courtesy of the filmmakers

In Sloane: A Jazz Singer, after being told that the documentary crew will follow her around for two weeks—in rehearsals, at home, at the grocery store—Sloane questions why anyone would be interested in her life. “Who the hell cares?” she asks the camera.

But she did care, of course.

“All the time she would complain about lights being everywhere,” says Lippert. “And, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe anybody would care about this for more than three minutes.’ And then you see her take a mug out of her dishwasher that says ‘DIVA’ on it. And she kind of winks at the camera. You know that she was very aware of that dichotomy where she didn’t want all the attention in the world, but she kind of did.”

John Brown, vice provost for the arts at Duke University, was impressed by Sloane’s recordings when he first heard them. 

“I first heard of her from Stephen Barefoot. Stephen and I have been friends for a long time,” says Brown. “The perpetual student I am, I had not heard of her name in all the research I’ve claimed to do.”

Brown, who is also a bass player, composer, and educator, says Sloane put a personal stamp on the songs she sang.

“In the case of Carol, when you hear her singing ‘The Nearness of You’—when you hear her sing ‘In the Wee Small Hours’—I’m always hearing her,” Brown says. “These are the same words that Nancy Wilson sang. Name your singer—Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. They all sing the same words. How they do it is where the magic is. She was a singer of the caliber of these people.”

Altogether, during her life, Sloane made about 30 albums. Before she died, she wanted one more. Her final album, Carol Sloane: Live at Birdland, was released in 2022.

Lippert showed Sloane several versions of his film as he was working on it. Sloane nitpicked, Lippert says. It was her way. But she was happy with the results overall. Lippert’s film went on to receive the award for Best Documentary Feature at the Santa Fe Film Festival.

Locally, two in-person screenings will show at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem on April 15 and 21, with virtual screenings additionally available April 14–22.

“Carol always wanted to be named among the greatest of the greats,” says Lippert. “Not because she had some great ego about it. It was because she really wanted to believe she had earned it. She never felt she was on par with Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan or any of her heroes. She felt that she was always chasing that perfection but never quite reached it.”

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