|Betty Carter - One Of A Kind |
Probably since its inception, people have argued over the definition of Jazz - what it is, what it isn’t, what is it and what isn’t it – with the same futility and purposelessness of Dark Ages clerics debating over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Even more daunting is the definition of Jazz singing. What separates Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan from Aretha Franklin or gospel diva Shirley Caesar? Or from any other singular and passionate vocalist like Patsy Cline, Oumou Sangare, Virginia Rodriguez or Etta James? And is Etta a Jazz singer when doing “God Bless the Child,” an R&B singer when singing Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and a blues singer on “Stormy Monday?” As the lines blur, one person remains in crystal clarity as, arguably, the only true Jazz singer, the utterly unparalleled Betty Carter.
Ironically, Betty, like so many other Jazz visionaries from Ellington to Miles Davis to Coltrane to George Russell, decried the term Jazz. And that’s certainly understandable in light of the limitations and improper assumptions placed upon the form by both the business world and the whims of public recognition and taste. However, if we accept the need for certain rigidities of definition, if only to make verbal communication possible, then Jazz is a word perfectly defined by the music of Betty Carter.
Using her voice in the exact manner as a lead horn, Betty stands apart from all other vocal soloists in any genre. Her ballads are more in keeping with Miles’ Harmon muted approach than in the classic vocal manner of Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan. Where the predominant style of even the greatest Jazz vocalist is still joined at the hip to the standard Euro-American song form, Betty is completely free from those restrictions. A song can take any form. Sometimes it starts deconstructed only to take its regular shape midway through the piece; sometimes it may only be presented in fragments throughout. But always, the essence of the composition is present in its entirety, and in full blossom, like some gorgeous flower in the blazing sun of high noon.
Even the words are transformed in her presentation. Whether smearing a word through a couple of octaves of definition, firing it out with whip-like, stiletto precision, or stringing together a phrase in a swooping glissando, Betty tears out every shred of meaning. Just as Ben Webster memorized the lyrics to ballads so he could instill more meaning into each note he played, Betty takes the meaning of the lyrics and weaves it into the abstract emotion of the overall piece, melding them together into a substance of overwhelming passion and exquisite beauty.
Standard piano trio accompaniment had no place in Betty’s music. The same level of interplay and synergy contained in all great Jazz was absolutely essential in playing with Betty. As with other great leaders and discoverers of new talent, such as Miles, Duke, Art Blakey and Max Roach, Betty can also be credited with operating one of the best “schools” of higher education, often called “Betty Carter U.” Through her Jazz Ahead program in which she conducted regular workshops in Brooklyn, and in the “doctorate” program of her own trio, Betty incubated many talented musicians, like pianists Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson and saxophonist Mark Shim.
Betty changed her accompanying musicians often “because it keeps me from repeating myself...I get something new from each musician that I hire – good for me and good for them.” True to that spirit, which had been part of the constant drive for evolution and growth that characterized Jazz in the pre-Marsalis era, Betty was an outspoken advocate of innovation and harsh critic of the placebo syndrome that has been throttling the music in recent years.
With the confident objectivisim, not arrogance, that all truly great artists possess, Betty made an eerily prophetic statement to drum great Art Taylor not too long before her death from pancreatic cancer in 1998:
“After me, there are no more jazz singers. What I mean is that there’s nobody scaring me to death. No young woman is giving me any trouble when it comes to singing jazz. I’m not even worried about it and that’s a shame. Its sad there’s nobody stepping on my heels so I can look back and say, ‘’I better get myself together because this little girl is singing her thing off!’ They’re all doing what everybody else is doing, and as I’m not doing what everybody else is doing I’m not even worried. It’s a crime that no little singer is socking it back to me in my own field. To keep it going, to keep it alive, because I’m not going to live forever, I’m going to die eventually and I don’t want it to die with me. I want it to live on.”
Like virtually all of Jazz’ immortals, Betty always moved forward, growing, evolving and continuing to outdo herself. And like all great innovators, it took incredible struggle and determination. After performing as a teenager in Detroit clubs with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and others led to 2 ½ years with Hamp and a permanent move to New York in the early ‘50s, she spent that decade working with groups led by Diz, Miles and Roach and trying to get rid of Hamp’s unwelcome nickname of “Betty Be-Bop” which she felt was too restricting. Her hit recording with Ray Charles in 1961 still didn’t produce much opportunity for a singer considered “too avant-garde” for the Jazz vocal audience even in the adventurous ‘60s.
But Betty never sold out, and became one of the first musicians to start her own label, Bet-Car Records in 1969, as much for her own independent spirit as for her struggles with the powerful controlling forces of the Jazz business. Nearly 20 years later, her album “Look What I Got” became the first independently produced Jazz album to win a Grammy.
By then Betty, who had always enjoyed enormous respect from musicians and most critics, had finally begun to receive her proper recognition from audiences all over the world.
During the White House ceremony in which she was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Art in 1997, President Clinton stated,” Hearing her sing ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ makes you want to curl up in front of the fire, even in summertime.”
Unlike so many other great Jazz innovators who never received proper recognition in their lifetime, Betty Carter was able to enjoy that respect in her final years. It’s a terrible loss to her and us, that she wasn’t able to enjoy it longer.
“I Can’t Help It - 1958-60 - Impulse “Ray Charles and Betty Carter” - 1961 - DCS Classics “Inside Betty Carter” - 1964-5 - Capitol “The Betty Carter Album” - 1972 - Verve (originally Bet-Car) “Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets” - 1987 - Verve “Now It’s My Turn” - 1976 - Roulette “Look What I Got” - 1988 - Verve “It’s Not About The Melody” - 1992 - Verve “Feed The Fire - 1993 - Verve “I’m Yours You’re Mine (Final Recording) - 1996 - Verve