Like her idol Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae is remembered for her one of a kind voice and lyrical interpretation. She was an accomplished piano player and early in her career she played piano at the famed Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. It was at Minton's where she met notable jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke, who would become her first husband. McRae found success as a pianist in Benny Carter's band, worked with Count Basie, and made her first recording not as a vocalist, but as a pianist with Mercer Ellington's band in the mid-40s. She often accompanied herself in her early gigs as a singer.
The warmth in her voice set McRae apart. She could deliver a ballad with deep emotion, she could swing like mad, and had a command of phrasing that still inspires jazz singers today. Throughout her fifty year career, McRae toured the world, appeared at major jazz festivals, and recorded dozens of albums. Even toward the end of her career, she was recording important albums, notably "Carmen Sings Monk" and "Sarah-Dedicated To You" for Novus Records in the early 1990s.
She earned seven Grammy Award nominations over the course of her career. In 1993 she was honored with the NAACP Image Award and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994.