Susannah McCorkle, 1946-2001

By Chris Willman
June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jazz singer Susannah McCorkle opened one of her best-regarded albums with the rousing Broadway tune ”While the City Sleeps.” This ode to early-morning Manhattan — kicking off 1985’s How Do You Keep the Music Playing? — evoked an idealized urban experience: ”When those Scarsdale squares/All have said their prayers/We receive what they’re praying for…/When the day has said goodnight/All is right.” What the song doesn’t evoke is the despair that can come in the wee small hours. In the predawn darkness of May 19, McCorkle, 55, leaped to her death from her high-rise apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

She left a note that reportedly revealed the depths of her depression. Though she was a breast-cancer survivor, she had suffered a string of disappointments, including a divorce and modest album sales. And friends told reporters that the recent termination of her longtime contract with Concord Records was crushing.

Although she never achieved the mainstream success her friends say she wanted, McCorkle was a star to the cabaret faithful. Over the course of 18 albums and 29 years of singing professionally, she’d developed a coolly emotive smokiness and cerebral approach lauded by major music critics in the New York and L.A. Times.

A fiction writer before achieving renown as a singer, McCorkle rarely wrote her own material. Eschewing a typical Tin Pan Alley repertoire, she unearthed Gershwin obscurities and convinced you that they too were standards. ”She had no tricks,” says Arthur Pomposello, cabaret director at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room. ”She presented pure jazz in an intelligent way.”

When, on her penultimate album — 1999’s From Broken Hearts to Blue Skies — she sang ”Something to Live For,” it seems it wasn’t just a figure of speech, but a mission. And in the end she couldn’t find a reason, while the city slept.