May 30, 2013
When Betty Carter died she left the world of jazz singing without a successor. At least that was her opinion.
After me there are no more jazz singers . . .
In the years since she made this prediction, at least two things have happened that might well surprise her were she able to look down on the world she left behind in 1998. One of these is that the word ‘jazz’ itself is widely acceptable, unlike when she started out – then it was widely derogatory. The other thing is the astonishing proliferation of jazz singers. Whether Betty Carter would regard many, or even any, of these newcomers of the past couple of decades as real jazz singers is anyone’s guess. For what it’s worth, my guess is that she would seriously question pretty nearly all of them.
Betty Carter is a singer almost all jazz fans have heard about, yet few jazz fans of my acquaintance have many, if any, of her records in their collections. She was born Lillie Mae Jones on 16 May 1929 in Flint, Michigan, and briefly studied piano although not with much success. Singing in local clubs from age 16, she attracted favorable attention including positive reactions from visiting jazzmen, among whom was Dizzy Gillespie who was an important influence on her. Before she was 20, she had also been heard and was hired by Lionel Hampton. She learned all her musical lessons the hard way, on the road with Hampton even though his band’s style, late swing era, was not to her liking.
In 1951, she quit Hampton’s band, and following this came a period in New York performing as a solo artist. This meant night after night singing for audiences who might, as often as not, respond with indifference or who simply failed to understand what she was about. This was because, unlike almost all of her singing contemporaries, Carter was determined on a jazz path. Perhaps more importantly, and certainly making that path a hard one to follow, she chose not the expected route that owed its origins to jazz roots such as the blues and popular music of the day but rather the new jazz style of bebop. She did, though, edge into public awareness thanks to a three-year-spell with Ray Charles that began in 1960 and brought a minor chart hit with Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
During her career, Carter never adopted Ella Fitzgerald’s way with a ballad, a way that allowed her to reach far outside the jazz kernel to embrace a huge section of the non-jazz public. Carter never found the perfect balance between successfully singing jazz and ballads as did Carmen McRae. And in her sound there was none of the vocal glory that was Sarah Vaughan’s. Perhaps Anita O’Day’s way came close, but it is hard to think of many others. Nevertheless, Carter did attract fans, even if they were not in sufficient numbers to make her commercially successful.
These fans were, of course, fans of jazz of the bop and post-bop eras. What they liked in Carter’s work was that she possessed qualities that made many contemporary jazz instrumentalists admire her to a degree they did not grant to other, invariably more famous, artists. In this respect, the admiration of and acceptance by her instrumental peers, Carter most closely resembles Billie Holiday, although there were no discernible aural similarities.
As must be apparent to anyone who has paid even the most fleeting attention to Betty Carter, she never swam with the tide. She appeared to care nothing for fame or fortune, often making career decisions that appeared hellbent on taking her into unemployment if not downright poverty. Perhaps surprisingly, Carter actually did care about fame and fortune. She wanted both, but she wanted them on her own terms; not those imposed by those outside the jazz world. Not surprisingly, although unusual at the time, she formed her own company, Bet-Car Records so that only she had control over what was recorded by herself and the trio – of piano, bass and drums – that accompanied her for decades of touring. A skilled musician who knew exactly what she wanted from those who accompanied her, and from those who employed her, Betty Carter drove herself to achieve perfection, as she saw it. She also drove her accompanying musicians to achieve commensurate skills. In the process, she acquired a legendary reputation as a hard taskmaster. That said, almost everyone who played with her, many of them young musicians new to the jazz world – among them John Hicks, Cyrus Chestnut, Mulgrew Miller and Benny Green – emerged all the better for the experience. As for those who employed her, they quickly learned that in addition to being skilled at her trade, she was similarly skilful in business matters. Above all, she demanded of them something that many employers in the jazz world of her day seemed least able to offer: respect.
Her hard-nosed business attitude was something she had learned back in her days with Lionel Hampton’s band. Hampton’s wife, Gladys, a woman she clearly admired and emulated, inspired her to be not only a singer but also a businesswoman. In the course of a career lasting half a century, Betty Carter traveled many byways, faltered in numerous dead ends, and rolled smoothly along sadly few highways. Only in the final decade of her life, was she granted some of the recognition and admiration she deserved. Even at the end, the audience for Betty Carter never attained the magnitude of those that attended the careers of Fitzgerald and Vaughan, or even McRae. In this respect, Carter most resembles Holiday whose greatest fame came long after her death. Fortunately, during her last few years Carter benefited from far more attention outside of the jazz hardcore than was accorded Holiday. Carter lived to be a guest of presidents, to be welcomed at seats of learning, to be credited with many important actions that arose from her work as a musician. Partly as a result of this, Carter became a role model for black artists, and for black women in general, something that never happened for Holiday in her lifetime.
What did happen for Holiday is that after death she attracted adulation bordering on worship. This prompts a question: Fifty years from now, will Carter be accorded the kind of iconic status that is Holiday’s today? Somehow, I doubt it. Despite the years of struggle, Carter did not have those qualities of the tragic woman that have forever shrouded the real Holiday and helped create the legend. Carter was a tough, no-nonsense woman who knew what she wanted and damn well got it, even if she had to step on toes to achieve her ends. Not that those ends were in any way unreasonable. She wanted to be treated like the hardworking artist she was, someone who had thoroughly learned her trade, and could hold her own, musically, in any company. Surely, this was not too much to ask for; yet only rarely was it granted. A strong, determined and gifted woman, Carter would surely have been successful at whatever she did and we should consider ourselves fortunate that she chose to be a jazz singer. Chances are, in any other arena she would have been just as bloody-minded and outspoken. And it is that aspect of her complex character that might well have hindered her in any other profession, just as it clearly hindered her in the male-dominated world of jazz.
Betty Carter did, however, leave a valuable legacy, not just through her recordings, but also, and doubtless its most visible part, through Jazz Ahead!, an international jazz residency aimed at discovering and encouraging performing and composing artists, and which is linked with Washington DC’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
As the earlier quotation shows, by her own lights, Carter really was the last of the great jazz singers. I don’t think she was right, but that said, it is hard to think of more than a tiny handful among today’s hundreds (or even thousands) of singers claiming to be jazz singers.
The foregoing thoughts owe their origins to my review of a biography of Betty Carter that appeared in Jazz Journal in November 2002. That biography is: Open The Door: The Life And Music Of Betty Carter by William R. Bauer. Published by University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbors. Michigan, USA. ISBN 0-472-09791-1. For more information on this remarkable woman, go to the official Bet-Car Production website.
The CDs and the book mentioned here are all available from Amazon.
May 18, 2013
The world of popular music is increasingly imperfect. Audiences tolerate (if indeed they are aware of) singers who cannot sing in tune but whose performances are subject to technical ‘adjustment’. Songs have lyrics that, if it is possible to hear them, have little or no meaning. Occasionally, a latterday singer will choose to sing songs from bygone days but in doing so prove that they understand neither the lyrics nor the essence of the period in which the songs were created. Well now, I am sure that you don’t need me to tell you any of this; it is, after all, a situation that has existed for several years now. But there is a reason for these opening remarks – okay, so maybe it’s become a rant – that might be summarized thus:
What we get in popular music today is seldom what we might expect from the packaging.
This is one of the reasons why a new album from Marlene VerPlanck is something to celebrate. All of us who love popular song know by now that when such an album appears our eager anticipation is always satisfied. Everything is as close to perfection as can happen. The choice of songs is always thoughtful – some are familiar, yet not overworked by other singers, others are not heard as often as they deserve, and there are occasional new songs that fit perfectly with their better-known companions. Then there are the arrangements, most often by Billy VerPlanck, Marlene’s husband for so many years, whose death in 2009 left a hole in music and in life that is impossible to fill. When it comes to accompaniment, Marlene always chooses to work with front-rank instrumentalists, finding rhythm sections well versed in those special skills that cushion and carry a singer, alongside soloists who can add special luster to a song without overpowering the vocal line. And then there is the voice. Astonishingly, given the number of years she has performed, Marlene still retains the gorgeously fluid crystal-clear sound that has always been a distinctive hallmark of her timeless work.
For this, her 22nd album, Marlene’s choice of songs was sparked by the discovery of several arrangements made by Billy but forgotten about. These were compositions by Cy Coleman and there are eight of them here, including Witchcraft, You Fascinate Me So, The Rules Of The Road, and I Walk A Little Faster. Five of the Coleman songs have lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, one by Dorothy Fields and two by Joseph A McCarthy. There are four songs composed by Harry Warren, I Wish I Knew, My Dream Is Yours, I Only Have Eyes For You, and There Will Never Be Another You. Two of these were written with lyricist Mack Gordon and one each with Ralph Blaine and Al Dubin. There is also a lovely original, composed by Billy VerPlanck with lyrics by Leon Nock; their collaborations came late in Billy’s life and other examples have enhanced previous albums by Marlene.
Two separate rhythm sections are heard here; one has pianist Tedd Firth, double-bassist Boots Maleson, and drummer Ron Vincent; the other is led by pianist Mike Renzi, with double-bassist Jay Leonhart, while Ron Vincent is again the drummer. On some tracks interweaving with singer and rhythm section are two distinguished guest soloists: trumpeter Claudio Roditi and tenor saxophonist Houston Person.
All the tracks on Ballads . . mostly are gems and any can be considered in assessing the album’s superiority. For example, It Amazes Me is one of the Coleman-Leigh songs; written way back in the 1950s, the song has not attracted many recording artists although listening to Marlene’s delightful interpretation this is hard to understand when, accompanied by the trio of Renzi, Leonhart and Vincent, she explores its melodic and lyrical charm. Another song by the same composing duo is Witchcraft; this song, which dates from the same decade has found many admirers, with perhaps three dozen recordings. Despite this, Marlene brings a fresh touch for which the same rhythm section is on hand, this time joined by Claudio Roditi whose trumpet playing (usually muted on this date) provides an elegant backdrop with deft solo touches. On I Wish I Knew, one of the Harry Warren-Mack Gordon songs, Marlene is backed by the Firth, Maleson, Vincent trio, who are joined here by Houston Person. The tenor saxophonist adds his trademark earthy tones to the songs on which he solos. The closing track on the album is the VerPlanck-Nock original, Why Was I Thinking Of Springtime. This song, with its pleasing melody and meaningful lyric, provides a fitting curtain to this exceptional album.
All who are familiar with Marlene VerPlanck’s work will need no urging to rush to buy this album and, as I remarked earlier, all expectations will be fully met. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this singer has a real treat in store.
Flick back to my Jazz CDs reviews in mid-July 2012, which includes Marlene’s One Dream At A Time.
Reviews of many other albums by this exceptional singer have appeared over the years in Jazz Journal.
To buy any of these albums, try good walk-in stores or go online – Amazon
May 11, 2013
These days it is easy for certain words to become meaningless. High on the list, especially when the subject is popular culture in general and music in particular, is the word ‘great’. All too often, we see a musician written of as being ‘great’ and referred to as a ‘giant’ when it takes only a moment’s pause for thought to recognize that none of this hyperbole is in any way justified.
There are exceptions. And among them is a musician who really was great and a true giant of jazz. His name is Benny Carter.
What is especially notable about this masterly musician is that it was not wide-eyed fans who first recognized and praised his talent, but his peers and they and their successors have never lost their admiration. Indeed, it was Benny Carter’s peers, and not some weary publicist, who very early in his career gave him the accolade: the King.
Bennett Lester Carter’s life began inauspiciously. He was born on 8 August 1907, in New York City, in a neighborhood of Manhattan known as San Juan Hill. In those days, San Juan Hill was a rough, tough place and home to many who would make a career in crime; but for all its potential disadvantages, it was also a district where young men could, if they chose, make music.
Carter was not alone among residents who took their musical talent into the world of jazz. His cousin, Theodore ‘Cuban’ Bennett was a widely respected (although unrecorded) trumpeter, and another cousin was Chicago-born clarinettist Darnell Howard. Among near-neighbors were trumpeter James ‘Bubber’ Miley, who gained fame with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, soon-to-be saxophonists Rudy Powell and Russell Procope, and trumpeter Bobby Stark. Eager to become a musician, Carter was encouraged by his parents, both of whom played instruments. As a small child, he played piano but as he entered his teens he decided that he wanted to play trumpet. His eagerness was not, however, matched with patience. And unable to master the instrument in the couple of days he allowed for the endeavor, he went back to the pawnshop where he’d bought it, and exchanged the trumpet for a C-Melody saxophone. This time he achieved quicker command and with the assistance of tuition from Harold Proctor and Lt. Eugene Mickell Sr., within two years he was sufficiently proficient to be made welcome when he sat in with bands in Harlem, which is where he moved with his family in 1923.
With trumpeter June Clark’s band, he made the switch to alto saxophone, and he then played with various bands, including those led by Billy Fowler, Lois Deppe, Earl Hines (where he played baritone saxophone), Horace Henderson, James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington (as a substitute), Fletcher Henderson, and then joined Charlie Johnson’s band at Smalls Paradise. He made his recording debut with Johnson, in 1928, and it is noteworthy that on the date the band played two of Carter’s arrangements; this was an additional talent he was swiftly fostering. The respect Carter engendered in fellow musicians became apparent in late 1928 when Carter rejoined Horace Henderson’s band. This was just before the leader quit, and despite Carter’s youth, he was still only 21, the musicians chose him as their leader.
During the early 1930s, Carter alternated between leading a band and working as respected sideman and arranger with others, including Fletcher Henderson again, Chick Webb, and he was musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.
While he never achieved a fraction of the acclaim granted other bandleaders during the 1930s, Carter’s band was one of the most highly regarded among musicians. Those who joined the band considered it to be an unparalleled academy of musical learning. That these ‘students’ in the early 1930s included names as noteworthy as pianist Teddy Wilson, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, trombonists Dicky Wells and J. C. Higginbotham, and drummer Sid Catlett, gives some idea of Carter’s perceived status within the profession.
In addition to writing charts for most of the bands in which he played, his arrangement of Liza for Webb was especially notable, Carter also wrote for Teddy Hill, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. In the years that had passed since his abortive attempt to play the trumpet, Carter had mastered the instrument and played this with Willie Bryant. In addition to his superior playing of the alto, C-Melody and baritone saxophones, trumpet and piano, he also much more than merely competent on clarinet, tenor saxophone and trombone.
In 1935, Carter crossed the Atlantic where he joined Willie Lewis’s band in Paris. He spent the next three years in Europe, playing also in Denmark and the Netherlands.
In this same period, he commuted frequently to London where he worked as an arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra led by Henry Hall. During these years, he made a number of very good recordings with multinational bands that included musicians such as Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt.
In 1938, he returned to the USA, a country now in the grip of swing fever, and formed another band with which he held a two-year residency at the Savoy Ballroom. Sadly the sheer musicality of Carter’s bands, allied as it was to the unassuming dignity of his personal bearing, failed to appeal to fans and he never gained the popularity achieved by others. During the big band era he had only one hit, Cow-Cow Boogie, a novelty trifle sung by Ella Mae Morse.
Other recordings in these years included small group work with the Chocolate Dandies and the Varsity Seven.
From early in the 1940s, Carter spent much of his time in Los Angeles, working as an arranger, composer and orchestrator in the film studios. Back then, race was a factor in Hollywood and Carter’s work was often uncredited. He continued to lead his own bands, big and small, in LA and back in New York and once again, the quality of the musicians he hired remained high.
In the late years of the 1930s and in the early 1940s, the musicians who honed their craft in the ranks of Carter’s bands included players such as trombonists J.J. Johnson and Al Grey, trumpeters Doc Cheatham, Jonah Jones and Miles Davis, and drummers J.C. Heard and Max Roach, all of them stylistically very different from sidemen in his earlier bands.
By the late 1940s, Carter’s film studio work was consuming most of his time and energies, and this continued through the next two and more decades, a period when he also worked extensively in television.
Nevertheless, in the 1950s, and shrugging off a 1956 heart attack, he still found time to play with Jazz At The Philharmonic and to form and lead bands for residencies, short tours, and recording sessions. Notable among these recording dates were Aspects, 1961’s influential Further Definitions album, on which he was joined by Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse, and 1966’s Additions To Further Definitions, with a band that included Mundell Lowe and Teddy Edwards.
An early example of his film work, off-screen and on, is Stormy Weather (1943) and he continued through Edge Of Doom (1950), 1951’s An American In Paris, A View From Pompey’s Head (1955),The Sun Also Rises (1957), Too Late Blues, Town Without Pity (both 1961), State Fair (1962), A Man Called Adam (1966), Buck And The Preacher (1972), and 1975’s TVM, Louis Armstrong-Chicago Style among a very long list. On television, he worked on several popular series, including scoring many episodes of M Squad, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Banyon, and Name Of The Game.
The musicality and musicianship Carter possessed endeared him to singers and he wrote arrangements for a wide range of jazz and jazz-influenced pop singers, among them Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan.
It was fortunate indeed that Carter attracted the biographers he merited. At the end of the 1960s, he had been invited by Morroe Berger, of Princeton University, to lead seminars and classes on campus, a scene he had first visited in 1928 as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s band. This activity continued through most of the 1970s, during which time Carter was awarded an honorary Master of Humanities degree. In 1982, Berger, brought out his two-volume biography, Benny Carter: A Life In American Music (written in collaboration with Ed Berger and James Patrick), which fully documented the life of this amazing musician. Except, of course, in 1982, Carter still had two decades of music making ahead of him.
The 1970s had seen Carter’s re-emergence as a concert and touring artist. He made numerous national and international tours, played jazz clubs and concert halls, and made many albums. One of his concert performances, at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival, is especially rewarding and utterly belies the fact that he was then a month short of his 70th birthday. In 1987, he teamed up with John Lewis and the occasionally-assembled All-American Jazz Orchestra for concerts dedicated to performing works written especially for big bands. To this repertoire, Carter contributed a major long work, Central City Sketches, rehearsing, conducting and playing solo alto at its premiere.
In 1989, his 82nd birthday was honored by a concert at New York’s Lincoln Center at which some of his songs were sung by Sylvia Syms and Ernestine Anderson. He celebrated his 85th birthday with a concert at Rutgers University, premiering two new suites written especially for the occasion: Tales Of The Rising Sun Suite and Harlem Renaissance Suite. In 1997, a special concert was held in honor of his 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl at which a new composition by John Clayton was played. Dedicated to Carter, the three-part suite was entitled, very appropriately, Maestro. The concert could not, though, be held on the actual day of Carter’s birth; instead, it was held two days earlier because on his birthday the indefatigable maestro had a gig in Norway.
Among awards received by Carter were the Kennedy Center Honor in 1996, an Honorary Degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1998, and the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In May 2000, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra premiered two of Carter’s new works, Time To Remember, memorializing President John F. Kennedy, and Again And Again, a ballad performed by alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton. The occasion was a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, remembering the city’s Central Avenue jazz scene, at which Maestro was played.
As a soloist, Carter’s fluent playing on alto saxophone and the gorgeously liquid sound he created made him kin to his near-contemporary, Johnny Hodges, and between them they effectively ruled the world on that instrument until the arrival of Charlie Parker. Although less well known, his clarinet playing was similarly rich and flowing. All these comments can be applied just as readily to his trumpet playing. Very few musicians double on reeds and brass; of those few that do, it is hard to think of any who achieve this with such apparent ease as Carter. In an interview some years ago, Bill Berry recalled an appearance with Carter in Tokyo who was, as usual, playing alto that night. Someone in the audience requested that Carter play trumpet. Although he did not have his own trumpet, and as far as anyone knew had not picked one up in years, Carter borrowed Berry’s cornet and played with the perfection of someone who was in daily practice.
Carter’s composing blended silky melodies with vibrant swing. Among his compositions are Blues In My Heart, which is one of the most recorded of his instrumentals, When Lights Are Low, also extensively recorded as an instrumental and as a vocal, with lyrics by Spencer Williams, Blue Star, Devil’s Holiday, Dream Lullaby, Blue Interlude, Lonesome Nights, Doozy, which defies anyone not to swing when playing it, Symphony In Riffs, which was also the title of a 1995 video release, and he also wrote Kansas City Suite for Count Basie’s band in the 1960s.
Benny Carter’s arranging was of a very high standard and he ranks with Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and a handful of others as an important architect of swing era big band concepts. His writing for the saxophone section was perhaps the most instantly recognizable element of his arranging talent. The smoothly flowing, seemingly simple yet decidedly complex sound he created was just one of the many joys that this remarkable man brought to jazz.
Benny Carter was married five times. His first marriage ended with the death of his wife in 1928 and three other marriages ended in divorce. He did find marital happiness though; in 1940, he had met Hilma Ollila Arons when she visited the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to hear him play. Despite mutual attraction, the couple recognized that times were not right for a mixed-race relationship. Fortuitously, almost 40 years later, the couple met again and they were married in 1979, remaining together until his death on 12 July 2003.
To return to those words used at the opening of these remarks, Benny Carter truly was a great musician and one of the giants of jazz. We shall not see his like again.
For these notes I have drawn upon an obituary of Benny Carter, written for Jazz Journal and appearing in the September 2003 issue.
The official Benny Carter web site, run by Ed and Laurence Berger, should not be missed by anyone interested in the life and career of this extraordinary and immensely talented man who remains a true giant, not only in the world of jazz but in the wider world of all good music.
Music students will find much of interest on the Smithsonian Institution’s website, under the heading of Benny Carter’s Music Class. Many of Benny Carter’s albums are readily available from walk-in and on-line stores, the latter including Amazon.