Betty Carter – Really a Jazz Singer

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 . . .

Betty Carter

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.

Columbia Records

Columbia Records

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.

ABC Records

ABC Records

 

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.

Bet-Car/Verve Records

Bet-Car/Verve Records

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.

Bet-Car/Verve Records

Bet-Car/Verve Records

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.

Bet-Car/Verve Records

Bet-Car/Verve Records

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.

Bet-Car/Verve Records

Bet-Car/Verve Records

 

 

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.

bc-bookThe 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.

Comments

One Response to “Betty Carter – Really a Jazz Singer”

  1. Ola Hemphill on November 12th, 2013 8:24 pm

    Wow! Do I forever agree with what’s said in this article. There have been so many times that I’ve felt like an outcast when I’ve spoken my mind on how uniquely great Betty Carter was/is as she absolutely stood apart from every other singer in the entire world. She is forever the purest and greatest jazz vocalist I’ve ever heard and who’s impressed me the most as it pertains to what I’ve tried to do as a vocalist who loves to sing straight ahead jazz and who chooses not to follow the norm, including not trying to copy what Betty did. (This is one of the greatest lessons I took from something Betty said during a 1992 jazz vocalist’ workshop she conducted in Detroit Michigan). I’m a vocalist who is also a pianist. I love to scat uptempo jazz tunes and over the years I’ve found that I enjoy utilizing what I’ve learned as it pertains to improvising on piano, listening to great jazz musicians, etc. to enhance my style of scatting. I’ve been blessed many times to sit in on jam sessions with great musicians that include jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and jazz saxophonist James Carter. I plan to release my first CD next year and Marcus has already recorded an improv solo on one of the songs. I thank you for writing this article that so clearly articulates Betty Carter’s greatness and why she was so great. She is forever an icon and I absolutely agree that she probably would not validate many singers of today, if any at all, as being true jazz singers.

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