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Betty Carter: 1930-1998
Betty Carter
Singer

Born: May 16, 1930 in Flint, Michigan
Died: September 26, 1998 in New York City, New York

Tasting The Good Life

by Howard Mandel
Copyright © 1999 Howard Mandel

Jazziz, 1998

Carter, Betty (HM) I first saw Betty Carter live in 1975, while reviewing for the Chicago Daily News: she was distinctively beautiful -- with unblinking big eyes and a candid slash of mouth, leonine head bopping on a swan's neck, out-thrust arms and seldom-still legs churning from a serious center of gravity. Her lips, teeth, tongue, throat, cheeks and jowls shaped notes so that her face was perpetually re-forming, and she moved while she sang, commanding every inch of stage -- hovering over her sidemen, turning in on them, cutting them off, getting everyone way quiet. Fed by some fierce drive, she'd long ago abandoned inhibitions for honest expression and strength.

From Carter, vividly drama flowed forth -- no actress ever played her roles so bluntly yet believably. No singer of any sex or musical style was more in-the-moment, consuming and combative, impassioned. She gave full voice and then some to a deeply romantic but yet assertively realistic range of experience and emotion. Her swooping, purring, luscious voice, her point of view and the glories of her combo all were something to reach for.

Women, in my experience, quickly recognized Betty Carter as a force of nature. To a man, it seemed they admired her quicksilver shifts through myriad dimensions, her penetrating truths and power. They admired the flexibility of her phrasing, the fire in her core, the enormity of her heart. They were not overwhelmed by her, but instead encouraged and embraced. She didn't deny their differences, but stood as a woman for a stage forward, moving on.

Betty Carter's death allows us one enduring essence of her life: a recorded legacy she accumulated over almost 50 years is, as she sang in words by Larry Hart, tune by Richard Rodgers, "swell, witty, and grand." Given the length of her career and the consistently high level of her output, it might at first seem slight. Sixteen CDs of music seems to be the full count of Carter's recordings -- fewer hours than Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan or Dinah Washington left behind -- but not one of them is superfluous, and they prove beyond doubt that Betty's among peers in that league.

Carter already had developed her distinctive approach in 1948 at age 18, when she sang 32 bars in 36 seconds of "Jay Bird" during a radio broadcast by Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra. Darting out from under a brassy fanfare, she scats with a quick tongue in a whole new language, saucy as a brook babbling long "oooos," bright "ings" and "eens," trumpety "dwee-aaaahs," and spilt-forth "doodily-doodily-doodily-bops." Carter was neither the first scat singer nor the first vocalist to pursue the harmonic paths of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but she was the first to put these pieces together with raging uptempo swing. As a result, Hampton's wife dubbed her "Betty Bebop."

Carter hated that nickname, or being otherwise labeled and limited, because she did a lot besides bop or scat. In December '49, recording "The Hucklebuck" (which Bird had recorded as "Now's The Time" in 1945) with Hampton's orchestra for Decca, Carter introduces the lyric "It's a dance you should know" with an insinuating low note. At first, the "it's" note is not obviously a word but rather a sound; by the time she ends the phrase "it's" is clearly a word launching a string of words -- but as her second and third phrases confirm, the song's power isn't in the words' meaning but in the singer's evocation of a lowdown, tender blues. The lyric is about learning a dance, but Carter offers a balm for whatever's wounded you. As Betty Bebop, she also got a four-bar wordless scat break on this track -- but its impact is slight beside what she squeezed from the first measures.

"Jay Bird," "The Hucklebuck," and "Red Top," Carter's 1952 hit duet with King Pleasure, are "bonus tracks" on The Bebop Girl, released by the Official Record Company of Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite being an obscure import mixed in the original mono -- old history dressed up with a cheesy pinup photo -- it's one of the essential Carter collections, and its provenance is respectible. The bulk of The Bebop Girl was originally issued as the vinyl LP Social Call, on Columbia Records Contemporary Masters Series in 1980.

Social Call brought together two of Carter's sessions: one from '55 of seven tracks with an estimable quartet arranged by Quincy Jones for her official debut (Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant), the other from '56 of five never-previously-released big band tracks charted by Gigi Gryce. The quartet's ace personnel (pianist Bryant, Jerome Richardson on flute, bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Philly Joe Jones) and choice repertoire (Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write A Book" besides "Thou Swell," the ballad "Moonlight In Vermont" and "The Way You Look Tonight") are perfect for Betty. She scats with delicious, deceptively easy precision, and gives each story-song the personal spin of direct address. You believe her every word, and her depiction in music, starting here, of a woman who's an adult, with all the attendant compound-complex facets. She sings the sweetest of compliments, recalls the most sensuous trysts, and certainly could write a book, too.

Carter's hardly less thrilling with the big band. If "Frenesi" is a bit too glamorously glossy, it's followed by a much more restrained Betty modestly suggesting "Let's Fall In Love,", backed through the first chorus only by a bass.

Like many of the singer's renditions, this one is less than two minutes long. She didn't need much time to establish her 3-D ideas, although she had amazing endurance, and was capable of half-hour improvisations, too. But Carter's longest outings were all the better for her control of concision. Indeed, from that '56 recording session on, control over all measure of duration, volume, tempo and rhythm, intimacy and intensity emerges as Carter's aim and her hallmark.

Also, in her subsequent sextet and tentet dates of February '58, originally produced for the Texas blues Peacock label, Carter begins to greatly diversify her material. The Peacock tracks were issued along with an orchestral album cut for ABC in '60 as the Impulse! CD I Can't Help It . Carter wrote the title tune herself, but is equally credible with the folkish "Bend In The River," Randy Weston's jazz waltz "Babe's Blues," Norman Mapp's anthem "Jazz (Ain't Nothin' But Soul)" and standards epitomizing the American vernacular such as "You're Getting to Be A Habit With Me," "You're Driving Me Crazy" and "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire."

Throughout, Carter quick-cuts between beguiling blue langour and hard fast action. Her tempii leaps may be sudden, but they represent a continuum of feeling rather than polar extremes, as her intensity is more telling than her speed. Carter's sense of herself is her ultimate strength -- remarkable in a vocalist just 30 years old -- and it allows her to claim some songs forever linked to others (Billie Holiday's "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," Sarah Vaughan's "Mean To Me") for herself, not by wiping out the previous efforts but by assuming them. Her acknowledgements abet her convictions.

The stamp of Carter's art is so bold yet adaptable, transcending genres or artificially imposed styles, that even such an evident anomaly in her oeuvre as the Ray Charles And Betty Carter album (arranged and conducted by Marty Paich in '61 for ABC-Paramount, reissued on CD by Atlantic) takes an honored place among her more self-directed efforts. There's nary a scat solo among the 12 tracks; the focus isn't on vocal acrobatics but rather the contrast of Charles' inimitable huskiness and Carter's warmly glowing gamut.

Beyong timbre, personality is the key to this album; tepid backup beds by the Jack Halloran Singers drop away as we're caught up in the principals' play. Ray and Betty twine sweetly on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "People Will Say We're In Love," coast merrily "Side By Side," spar just right on Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (from the Esther Williams movie Neptune's Daughter, in which seducer/resister couples Ricardo Montalbam and Williams, Betty Everett and Red Skelton sing it simultaneously, intercut), croon "For All We Know" and bounce through "Just You, Just Me." It's hard to think of a better realized one-album pairing in all pop music than Betty and Ray, or any two singers so obviously different yet so well met.

If that album should have made Cousin Betty as famous as Brother Ray -- well, her '64 classic Inside Betty Carter (from United Artists, reissued on CD by Capitol Jazz with seven previously unreleased tracks from '65 featuring Kenny Burrell's quartet) has established her supremacy in jazz. She penned only one composition ("Open The Door") of the eight that were originally issued, but each tune from the deliberate opener "This Is Always" through the explosive finale "Something Big" seems to spring from Carter herself. In the manner of the best LPs by sophisticated song purveyors of the era -- like the Reprise recordings of Frank Sinatra -- the album succeeds as a whole. But two tracks demand special attention.

Carter begins "Look No Further" (another Richard Rodgers melody) totally exposed, rather like an alto flute over lone walking bass, and creates an indelible one minute 55 seconds. Pianist Harold Mabern kicks off "My Favorite Things" with support from bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Roy McCurdy in a Coltrane-at-the-Vanguard mode, and Betty has that saxophonist's advances in her grasp, reveling in the bee's "shting," climaxing with a note that she holds, ululating, for a full 15 seconds to a drop-dead stop-time. In a mere minute 35 seconds she distills Trane, The Sound of Music and her own unbounded soul.

Unhappily, rather than launch her commercial success Carter's early accomplishments landed her at the threshold of straightahead jazz's '60s-'70s crisis. Since her integrity -- sometimes called stubborness -- did not allow her to be co-opted or compromised by soul, rock, pop or free jazz fashions, she fell back on her own entrepreneurial resources to produce and self- distribute a series of albums on her BetCar label. Most of these have been reissued on CD by Roulette or Verve. On each of them, Betty stars with a piano trio -- not fronting or supported by the rhythm section, but directing and immersed it, exactly as a single-line instrumentalist would be.

The Audience With Betty Carter, a two-disc set drawn from three consecutive nights in 1979 at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, is characteristic of her music in that era. Starting with "Sounds (Movin' On)" for more than 25 minutes as a warm up (!), Carter spontaneously weaves together pure scat, clever ontomatopoetics, whispers, moans, cries, calls, hollers and personnel ideas (John Hicks is the pianist, Curtis Lundy bassist, Kenny Washington drummer), alternating between ultra-slow, moderate swing and warp speed episodes for heightened suspense and highly satisfying resolution. In the course of this tour de force, she touches on most conceivable vocal strategies, including blues cadences, tone painting, lyric distortions and melodic extrapolations, conjuring up motifs she retires and reprises as inspiration strikes.

Writing much more of her own material (besides "Sounds" and "Open The Door," The Audience With contains "I Think I Got It Now," "Tight" and its follow-up "Fake," and "So . . . "), Carter also grabs whatever she likes from the greater American songbook. She radically re-tools "The Trolley Song" (immortalized by Judy Garland), into a roller coaster ride. On other BetCar albums she was similarly faithful to the intent, but not the niceties of "What's New," Monk's "'Round Midnight," and Rodgers and Hammerstein's (and Miles Davis's) "Surrey With The Fringe On Top."

Like most contemporary singers, Carter's subject matter centered on romance, but hers was of the most mature variety. Her first album on Verve/Polygram, 1982's What Ever Happened To Love?, live with trio and strings at New York's Bottom Line, is a cycle of euphoric encounters, unforgettable tete a tetes, sad partings and not entirely stoic reflections. But the voice behind "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" does not belong to a kid; unlike Billie Holiday singing it in '35, Carter recognizes that the moonlight illuminates illusions. She doesn't try to disguise the purpose of her "Social Call," and is mercifully firm bidding her former lover "Goodbye."

Although affairs of the heart dominate her repertoire, The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Duets (Verve) of 1987, also recorded live at the Great American Music Hall, goes after friendship. In "What's New," "Stolen Moments," "But Beautiful," "Isn't It Romantic," "Sophisticated Lady," and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" the aging divas compare notes like sorority sisters reunited. At the time, McRae was ailing; her voice sometimes cracks, but her interpretations are without b.s. Carter downplays her own vocal prowess, and lightens up on her usual intensity, so the two define a truly musical plane. On how many records do you hear the singers laughing? As in the records of Armstrong and Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, some late Sinatra, and Betty with Ray, McRae and Carter prove partnership is more than the sum of parts.

Carter's recordings from her last decade indicate she sought renewal from challenging collaborations. In '90, on Droppin' Things, she introduced her heart-breaking "30 Years," as well as young up 'n' comers pianist Marc Cary, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Gregory Hutchinson -- discoveries from the Jazz Ahead! initiative she created with funds from her National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters award. She also worked with pianist Geri Allen (on a medley of "Star Dust" and "Memories of You"), trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and saxophonist Craig Handy, who returned for It's Not About The Melody in '92 on tracks with John Hicks, Walter Booker and Jeff "Tain" Watts. Two other trios (comprising pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Marcus Miller, bassists Ariel J. Roland and Christian McBride, drummers Clarence Penn and Lewis Nash) are featured, as well, and Carter affected the same amelodic stance to "In The Still Of The Night," "You Go To My Head," and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" as to her original ballad "Make Him Believe" and wordless "Dip Bag."

During her 60s, Carter's voice changed; her girlishness survived not in lilting highs and sprightly enunciation but in her desire to let go and plunge on. Feed The Fire, with Geri Allen, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette live from London's Royal Festival Hall, demonstrates that spirit, and the rich vein of music four such sensitive pros can tap.

The studio album I'm Yours, Your Mine of '96 is Carter's single record with a sense of despair; her darkened pitch emphasizes the autumnal nature of Kurt Weill's "Lonely House" and "September Song," and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Useless Landscape," rather than her usual spring-like buoyancy.

Look What I Got!, of 1998, was Betty Carter's last album covered by her Verve contract, and Verve execs say they've got no more in the can. The good news is that in it she returns from the edge of the I'm Yours, Your Mine abyss; in Look What I Got! she's again a happy woman, up for what's next. On the cover portrait she is beaming, and in the music, she's ready for anything: "The Man I Love," fantasies "Just Like The Movies (Time)," giddiness attending her new "Mr. Gentleman (Sequel to 'Tight')" and the satisfactions reported in the final song of the sequence, "The Good Life."

"It's the good life/to be free," Betty sings, quietly ironic and understanding. The plot of the song, in a few choruses, makes it apparent that she's describing a bachelor's existence, and intimating with subtly increased persistence that connection is the better side of the coin. At last, finally and conclusively, Betty captures that most elusive creature, man; her punch line is, "Wake up and kiss/the good life goodbye." Betty's voice is like a dawning -- no wonder she beams on the cover! Look what she's got!

Maybe the next few years will bear witness to more Carter recordings -- bootlegs from her under-documented '50s, early '60s, BetCar epoch or later concert tours. Whatever comes, it's unlikely to change what we known and feel about her. For oh, so many listeners, the good life requires hearing Betty Carter sing, and with her glorious records we have now in hand, we don't have to kiss that goodbye.


Howard Mandel
Howard Mandel is a freelance writer living in New York City, and president of the Jazz Journalists Association; his book Future Jazz is coming in May 1999 from Oxford University Press.

E-mail: Jazzmandel@aol.com

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With 3 reader comments, latest May 15, 2001