scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Dancing to the good vibrations of Carol Kaye, trailblazer

Olivia Coombs of Boston Dance Theater performs in "Carol/Karole," choreographed by Karole Armitage.SARAH TAKASH

Carol Kaye is hardly a household name. But while you might not recognize the seminal studio bassist and guitarist, you surely will appreciate her artistry. Think of the catchy bass lines in Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” or The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” That’s Carol Kaye. In a prolific recording career spanning 65 years, the 87-year-old Kaye has played on more than 10,000 tracks. Her creative artistry included popular TV shows like “M*A*S*H,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Mission Impossible,” and she worked with producers including Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector, collaborating across genres for artists ranging from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to Stevie Wonder and Frank Zappa.


And yet, though she’s a revered icon in the recording industry, Kaye’s work has most often gone uncredited, like that of so many studio musicians. Boston Dance Theater just may help change that a bit with its new “Carol Kaye Project,” which will be given its full-evening premiere Nov. 11-12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Presented by Global Arts Live, the program features new works inspired by Kaye from four notable female choreographers, including BDT founder and coartistic director Jessie Jeanne Stinnett. “It was important to me that all the choreographers are women, and range in age and cultural perspective,” says Stinnett.

Maure Aronson, Global Arts Live’s founder and director of artistic programs, adds, “Each choreographer has a very different approach to the dance and to the music, so you actually see four distinctly original works.” Between each work are short interviews with musicians who know Kaye.

Rena Butler’s “For the Record” was the first piece commissioned for the project. Set to music by the trailblazing Kaye — plus Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and Kendrick Lamar — the work has a social justice underpinning as it examines the scale of Kaye’s contributions and explores, as the program notes explain, the ways “a patriarchal society often overlooks substantial voices by othering them.” The choreographer integrates into the piece audio of Kaye speaking.


Choreographer Rosie Herrera created her “Ofrenda” in collaboration with the dancers. Stinnett says, “A lot of [Herrera’s] work is interested in religious iconography, and this work has to do with motherhood, offerings, and sacrifice, [elevating] Carol as an unsung hero and diva.”

Carol Kaye and Bill Pitman appeared in the 2015 documentary "The Wrecking Crew," about Los Angeles-based session musicians in the 1960s and '70s.Magnolia Pictures

Karole Armitage’s “Carol/Karole” is a nod to the ‘60s using four of Kaye’s iconic songs and tapping into the bassist’s innovation and sophistication. “Carol Kaye’s music is so marvelous, so smart, so groovy, full of life and deep in mathematical complexity,” says Armitage. “I grew up listening to ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ and ‘Mission Impossible,’ and hundreds of others. I’m trying to convey the spirit of those times — American optimism and liveliness and the sense of possibility embedded in that music. I’ve tried to capture that vitality and humanness and driving, visceral fun and kinetic energy, so it’s entertaining, but also very serious … exploring new dance vocabulary.”

Stinnett’s own “Legacy” is a reflection of just that. Growing up in a family of bass players, she created the work in collaboration with her brother Grant Stinnett, not only a double bassist but a composer and producer. The only work with an original score, “Legacy” explores Kaye’s musical influence while also honoring the memory of Stinnett’s late father, Jim Stinnett, a distinguished bassist and educator. It was he who suggested Kaye when the choreographer was looking to explore under-recognized female musicians — he knew Kaye personally and used her methodology in his teaching. “I didn’t know how far reaching her artistic presence was,” says the choreographer. “So many of Carol’s songs are the ones I listen to to feel happy. She would innovate lines that would pull disparate ideas together, set everyone on course, making songs feel funky or groovy, making songs hits.”


“I was always thinking about different lines to make the tune sparkle and the singer sound good,” says Kaye, who is thrilled with the celebration of her legacy through the choreographic project. She adds, “That they want to interpret my line in movement — I’m blown away. It’s beautiful what they’re doing.”

Jessie Jeanne Stinnett choreographed and performs in "Legacy."SARAH TAKASH

Stinnett says Kaye’s bass lines were the original impetus for generating movement and music for her new “Legacy.” “I channeled her through my body and was interested in how the bass showed up in my dancing,” she says. “I let my body respond to create phrase material, then took that music away and told my brother to create bass lines that he felt connected with Carol and my dad.” The original electronic score features multilayered bass tracks.

The “Carol Kaye Project” is the fourth time Global Arts Live has presented Boston Dance Theater, co-directed by Stinnett and Itzik Galili, onstage at the ICA. “The company is growing in maturity as a top-notch national repertory company,” says Aronson. “They’re technically strong and a very cohesive ensemble, and you can see that onstage, and they commission work from really good choreographers. This is part of their path to success.”


“They’ve definitely championed us,” says Stinnett. “They’re essential to our growth and development. We couldn’t have done it without their partnership.”

And now Stinnett has the opportunity to pay it forward. She says, “I hope this concert helps people know a little bit more about Carol and enjoy her music in a slightly different way. Her influence is so huge.”

On Monday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m., Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, founder and coartistic director of Boston Dance Theater, and choreographer Karole Armitage will host a free online conversation about their creative process. Watch live on the Global Arts Live YouTube channel


Boston Dance Theater

At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Nov. 11-12

Karen Campbell can be reached at