Remembering Betty Carter

By Sandy Carter

As with the passings of most jazz performers, the death of singer Betty Carter (age 69) from pancreatic cancer in late September of last year was little noted in the mainstream press. Although jazz is often applauded as America's greatest indigenous art form, an African-American defined genre that commands only 5 percent of the music marketplace finds even its masters ignored outside the small insider world of jazz musicians, critics, and fans.

In the last decade there has been growth in the popularity and respectability of the jazz art. Picking up on various jazz/hip hop fusions, the steady stream of jazz album reissues, and the recent resurgence of swing, a younger fan base has emerged to appreciate jazz as "outsider" art and a "new" statement of cool. The major label music industry's promotion of young lions such as Roy Hargrove, James Carter, and Joshua Redman and esteemed elders such as Joe Henderson, Abbey Lincoln, and Shirley Horn has also widened the commercial niche of mainstream jazz. Certainly the broad musical appeal and relentless advocacy of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has earned the heritage new respect and acceptance.

Nonetheless, in this same period, the demise of the jazz club (a venue seating 100 to 300 listeners and booking jazz four to seven nights weekly) has made national touring for most jazz acts virtually impossible. Except for jazz festivals, which offer a relatively affordable, relatively populist summertime setting for the music, live jazz has no place to go but the fine arts center, the university, or the pricey museum-stiff supper club. Aside from its use as a backdrop for conspicuous consumption, jazz is almost totally absent from commercial TV and radio. As a result, the health of jazz--as music, as cultural expression, as commodity--is open to question.

Betty Carter was, of course, well aware of the precarious relationship between jazz and commerce. After spending more than four decades as a jazz singer, she enjoyed her commercial peak in the 1990s. Still, to friends and musicians, she questioned the direction of the tradition. Younger singers, in her view, were locked into constricted record company-dictated formulas that subverted the freedom of "real" jazz singing. "After me," she said, "there are no more jazz singers. I'm going to die eventually, and I don't want it (jazz singing) to die with me."

An amazingly powerful, dramatic singer with very definite ideas about the essentials of authentic jazz, Carter maintained an uncompromising musical vision rooted in a sound that originated in her teenage years. Growing up in Detroit, she began singing in clubs with touring jazz players, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, at age 16. By the time Carter joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1948, she was so thoroughly devoted to Parker and Gillespie's new revolutionary style, Hampton nicknamed her "Betty Bebop."

Molding a singing style that fused the fluid improvisational grace of Parker's alto saxophone with a radical reorganization of melody and lyrics, Carter seemed to draw little from the vocal tradition of jazz. Fragmenting tunes and words with abrupt tempo changes, swoops, sighs, moans, and melodic abstraction, Carter took inspiration from jazz instrumentalists. Other jazz singers, such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, also claimed horn players as a significant influence on their singing. But Carter's frantic energy and seeming disregard of lyrics made her "far out" in even the hip circles of early modern jazz.

The "weirdness" of Carter was not just musical. Her high energy, authoritative presence, husky lower register, wit, and sarcasm melded with her bop unorthodoxy in a way that undermined nearly all expectations of the female jazz singer. In sound and image, Betty Carter projected fierce independence. Though she sang the standard material of the times, what she did with it was utterly subversive.

While Carter never considered herself much of a pianist, she did study the instrument growing up and early on in her career sang and played piano in Detroit clubs. Through this on-the-job training, she learned fundamentals of harmony and composition that she incorporated into her vocal style. In years to come Carter would work with and tutor some of the finest pianists in jazz (Wynton Kelly, John Hicks, Ray Bryant, Cyrus Chestnut, Steven Scott, Bennie Green, and Geri Allen) in her very particular brand of bebop.

But the most basic element of Carter's bold melodic and lyric improvisations was rhythm. Directing her rhythm sections through intricate and ever shifting time patterns, Carter chopped up, stretched, abandoned, and reassembled words and melodies with spontaneous never heard before brilliance. As she put it, "I don't want anything planned, I want everything fresh and new."

For most of the jazz public, however, Betty Carter's singing was a little too fresh. While in New York City she gained a reputation as a dedicated and innovative jazz singer, work elsewhere was scarce. For a while, in the 1950s and 1960s, she worked on the fringes of the R&B world, sharing stages with Muddy Waters and touring and recording with Ray Charles. In 1964 she retired from a full time career to raise children. Returning to performing in 1969, Carter at last realized her desire to make music on her own terms.

When forming her own label, Bet-Car Records, she also settled on the ideal musical setting for her sensational improvisations. In a trio format of piano, bass, and drums, with carefully selected players adapted to her concept, Carter had the freedom to discover the full range of her singular talents. Documented on the stirring live recording, At The Village Vanguard (1970), Carter soars with full artistic control and the emotional give and take of an intimate, enthusiastic audience. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, performances such as this gradually established Carter as the pre-eminent jazz singer of her time.

The respect accorded Carter in her later years, however, derived from more than her jazz artistry. For the tradition she devoted her life to, she was a tireless advocate and educator. She loved speaking of the freedom jazz represented.

Betty Carter: Selected Discography

Social Call (Columbia 1955)

I Can't Help It (GRP 1958)

At The Village Vanguard (Verve 1970)

The Audience With Betty Carter (Verve 1979)

Look What I Got (Verve 1988)

Droppin' Things (Verve 1990)

It's Not About The Melody (Verve 1992)

Feed The Fire (Verve 1993)

I'm Yours, You're Mine (Verve 1996)

All are recommended, but Betty Carter's best work is on live recordings: At The Village Vanguard, Feed The Fire and The Audience With Betty Carter (one of the finest vocal jazz performances ever recorded). zzzzzzzzzzzz