Remembering Susannah McCorkle

Today 23 years ago, Susannah McCorkle passed. It was a suicide, after years of struggling with depression, like so many (most?) suicides are. You can read about her life a lot of places, but I liked this profile best. 

I only saw McCorkle perform once: that was almost a decade before she passed, back when the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival was a bigger event, and more big-name acts from around the world stopped by while crossing Canada. McCorkle was charismatic and luminous, her performance fascinating. Her “vocalise” performances of several famous jazz solos set to lyrics of her own devising mesmerized me even then, in my very early 20s, and her rendition of the Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary tune “Here’s to Life” (here’s the inaugural Shirley Horn version, since McCorkle seems not to have recorded it) caught my attention so much that when fall came, I asked my saxophone teacher whether he had a copy of the lead sheet. He gave me one, and I practiced it, though the chance to play it never came for me.  

I was also impressed with her ability to sing in multiple languages. I’m pretty sure she sang a third of the show in Portuguese, probably including “Waters of March”:

Reportedly this Jobim piece became her theme song in the 90s. McCorkle’s struggled to find the joy she infused into that song, and in the end her depression and a series of career setbacks (after a career where she never reached the ostensible “top tier” of the field) proved too much for her to accept. But I prefer to see her having survived it all as long as she did, and having made such striking music, a triumph in the face of crushing odds. With most singers, I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics of songs, I have to admit: I’m not wired for it, or that’s what I thought till I heard McCorkle, whose treatment of lyrics has a kind of crystal clarity that demands one’s attention. Though she was a complicated woman, reportedly unlikeable to anyone who reads the biography of her life (Linda Dahl’s Haunted Heart)—and what’s more a part of the jazz tradition than being unlikeable in real life?—it saddens me to know she passed alone, leaping from a window. Did she know people would still be listening to her decades later? Could she care? I don’t know. But I’m one of those who is still occasionally listening to her. 

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