Betty Carter is the jazz aficiando’s jazz singer.  She is really the jazz singer’s jazz singer.  Starting her career at the tender age of 16, she used a fake birth certificate in order to gain admission to bars and clubs in order to perform.  Living in Detroit, she was able to perform with many famous jazz artists who came through on tour, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others.  Her big break, however, was when Lionel Hampton asked her to join his band in 1948.  It was Hampton’s wife who gave her the nickname, “Betty Bebop” (a name of which she was not particularly fond), as she exhibited a facility with this music and had a hard time with the swing style of Hampton’s band, preferring the bebop style.  A naturally improvisational genius, she had conflicts with Hampton, as she insisted on scatting and singing “outside the box” whenever she performed.

Leaving the Hampton band in 1951, Betty struck out on her own.  The rest is really history, and if you have not made yourself familiar with Betty’s extensive catalog, get crackin’!  (Check her out with another great, Ray Charles, on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.)

My first introduction to Betty was when I was 15, and was introduced to her seminal album, “Out There, With Betty Carter”. I fell in love with the tone of her voice.  She did not sound like anyone else.  She had a breathy sound, but also sounded just like an instrument, a horn really.  The tone was clear and breathtakingly beautiful.  I have been a fan ever since.

After a hiatus of quite a few years, brought on by family demands, and the advent of rock and pop music, Betty struck out again in a different way, and ventured to establish her own independent record label.  Not wanting to depend on the whims of a record company to promote her music during a declining period for jazz, she became maybe the first artist to create her own label.  This was really unheard of, at the time.  

Betty never lost her innovative and improvisational core.  Her later recordings are masterpieces of music deconstruction, literally turning the melody on its head.  A great example of this latter period is her recording, “It’s Not About the Melody”.  But really, it was, as the melody was the basis of her brilliant improvisations.

Later, Betty became a master teacher of the music at university, and later at the Lincoln Center.  She was responsible for the mentorship of many a young and developing music student, who went on to become great names in their own right.  I saw her once at the original Yoshi’sin the 1980’s, and every musician with her was wet behind the ears. She was aggressively driving the band to give her what she wanted in that performance, in a fantastic demonstration of give-and-take between Betty and the instrumentalists.  It was a great night of music and a wonderful example of the conversations that happen between musicians in a jazz performance.   

I was fortunate to meet Betty face-to-face, in her dressing room at the new Yoshi’s, just a few months before she passed away.  She was fabulous on stage as always, and although exhausted from her performance, she was very welcoming and gracious to me. I was thrilled to meet one of my great idols.  I told her how I discovered her as a teenager through “Out There”, and that it was still one of my favorites.  She was amused to hear that I remembered the album cover clearly.  Betty’s face was in a “Sputnik” on the front cover as she looked up, and as I recall she had on a fantastic, curve hugging butterfly gown on the back cover.  I told her I was a singer, and asked her how she kept singing in the very high ranges even as she was getting older.  Her voice had not changed at all in over 40 years.  She told me, “just keep singing up there”.  I continue to treasure that advice. 

 

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