"Like many singers, I was blessed with some very good ears, and I listened," says Carol Sloane. "I knew that I could duplicate sounds that I heard."

The first musical sounds that Sloane found herself duplicating were sections of Bach and Gounod masses. "Those of us who couldn't read music had to learn them by heart," she says, recalling church choir practice as a child in Providence, R.I., "just as I later learned Jon Hendricks' lyrics to Ellington's 'Cottontail.' "

To this day Sloane has not learned to read music, a circumstance that, far from being a hindrance to her, doubtless explains how she can express such extraordinary nuances of emotion with the sort of control and phrasing one customarily hears only from horns. Truly a singer's (and musician's) singer, she opened yesterday for three weeks at Cates in Alexandria, accompanied by pianist Tony Matarrese and bassist Tommy Cecil.

Growing up in Providence in the late 1940s and '50s, Sloane discovered that the fare on FM radio was different from that on AM. "On one wavelength I heard white singers, wonderful white singers, sing great popular music. On FM I heard all these black women who'd had the same kind of training I'd had -- they grew up in churches singing a disciplined kind of music." She reels off a roster that includes Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae. "I heard Rosemary Clooney sing 'Deep Purple' and then I heard Sarah Vaughan sing it, and I heard two different songs. I decided Sarah's was the more interesting to me."

Sloane was singing with a local dance band at age 14 and went on the road with the Larry Elgart Orchestra at 20. Two years of "one nighters forever" persuaded her to take a job as a secretary in New York. She credits Jon Hendricks, of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, with encouraging her to return to singing, for it was through him that she was given an afternoon spot on the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival program.

Hendricks soon invited her to sit in with his group at the Village Vanguard. Her club debut there with pianist Oscar Peterson several months later launched her on a three-year circuit of the Vanguard, Chicago's Mr. Kelly's and San Francisco's hungry i. "I opened for the Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby," she recalls with amusement. "Lenny Bruce and I worked the Village Vanguard for seven weeks one time when all the newspapers in town went on strike. Then I worked for three years with Arthur Godfrey on his radio show. The '60s were fat years." With three albums on CBS, Sloane was being touted as "the best white female under-30 singer in the country."

Fickle American taste brought an end to all that. "When the Beatles had arrived, that was when I got a call from North Carolina to do a job and I took it -- otherwise I couldn't pay the rent." Sloane relocated in Durham, where she now lives in "a tobacco warehouse converted to condominiums." This is her base of operations ("When I come off the road I can't wait to get here") for her weekly radio show on WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill, "Sophisticated Lady," her periodic forays on the American club scene and her annual tours of Japan, where she has released seven albums since 1980.

"They want to hear those old standard tunes," says Sloane of her Japanese audience, "like 'Stardust' and 'Misty.' " Amazement taking over her voice, she adds, "I have never seen any kind of concert not filled in that country -- rock 'n' roll, the Juilliard String Quartet, country music, anything. Possibly the reason that country is so damn successful in what it does is because they're so open to everything."