“I don’t hear anybody out there now who really scares me, who makes me think, ‘Betty, you got to push a little harder,’” Betty Carter once told the Daily News Magazine. “So many of the good ones straddle the line between jazz and commercial. They think they can do both. But when I see someone straddling, I know I got nothin’ to worry about.”
“Straddling” has no place in Carter’s aesthetic. While many of her contemporaries went the commercial route over the years, striving for the money and fame that a hit record might bring, Carter stuck to what she set out to do as a teenager—sing jazz, her way. In the end her perseverance and talent paid off. Though she’s self-taught and considers herself not a “true” singer, she’s earned a place alongside such jazz divas as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. In jazz, after all, what matters is not so much training and technique as originality—which she has plenty of.
As noted in the New York Post, she’s a “singer who can take a standard and—without relying on facile ‘shoo-be-doo-be’ scat—reinvent it on the spot by reharmonizing the melody, changing the emphasis of the lyrics, and toying with the tempo and rhythm.” (Older-generation critics have accused her of losing the theme in the complexity of her interpretations; younger ones are usually floored by her inventions.) Each time she performs, whether standards or originals, she seems to stretch the concept of improvisation to a new limit. She’s known for taking ballads at tempos that are impossibly and mesmerizingly slow. Then there’s her inimitable contralto—deep, sensuous, and husky. And she has a character whose strength underlies the power of her voice. Throughout her four-decade-plus career she’s done things her way from start to finish, even though it meant struggling for many years. “A lot of people don’t like dealing with an independent black female, who takes care of her own business and holds her head high,” she told AP writer Mary Campbell. “But I’ve never thought about quitting. I’ve been discouraged maybe but something would always happen to make you think you’d be a star in the next six months.”
Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in Detroit and as a high school student studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. It was a time when a brilliant and bold new music was sweeping the country—bebop, the postwar jazz style that was being pioneered by the great saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, and horn player Dizzy Gillespie. Lillie Mae was immediately turned on to it. She often “played hookey at the soda joint across the
For the Record…
Born Lillie Mae Jones, May 16, 1930, in Flint, MI; children: two sons.
Studied piano as a teenager at the Detroit Conservatory of Music; won a talent show at Detroit’s Paradise Theater, 1946; while still in high school, sat in on gigs with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other bebop musicians visiting Detroit. Toured with Lionel Hampton’s band, 1948-51, Miles Davis, 1960, and Ray Charles, 1960-63; performed in Japan, 1963, London, 1964, and France, 1968. In 1969, began to work with her own trio and founded her own record company, Bet-Car Productions. In 1975, appeared in Howard Moore’s musical Don’t Call Me Man. Continues to perform and record with her trio.
Awards: Earned Grammy nominations for the albums The Audience With Betty Carter, Whatever Happened to Love?, and Look What I Got! In 1981, Bet-Car Productions won an Indy Award as the nation’s best independent label.
Addresses: Home— Brooklyn, New York. Media information— Polygram Classics, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
street from my high school and listened to the jukebox, which was filled with bebop singles,” she told Pulse! “We would sit around and learn the solos, and go to see them whenever they came to town—we met Bird and Dizzy when they came to our school.” Soon she was singing Sunday afternoon cabaret gigs; by the age of 18 she had sat in with Bird, Dizzy, trumpeter Miles Davis, and other greats. Her first employer, though, was not a bebopper but a veteran of swing music—the vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. In a 1988 interview with AP writer Campbell, Carter recounted their first meeting: “I went with some classmates to hear Lionel’s band. We were standing in front of the bandstand. A guy said, ‘Why don’t you let Lillie Mae sing?’ That was my name then. He said, ‘Can you sing, Gates?’ I said yes. He said, Then come on up, Gates.’”
The impromptu audition landed her a job. From 1948 to 1951 she toured with Hampton, standing in front of his big band and scatting (improvising with nonsense syllables) segments of the tunes they played. “I didn’t get a chance to sing too many songs because Hamp had a lot of other singers at the same time; but I took care of the bebop division, you might say,” she told Pulse! with a chuckle. “He’d stick me into songs they were already doing, so I was singing a chorus here, a chorus there; I didn’t realize at the time what good training that was. And I had the late Bobby Plater teach me to orchestrate and transpose, which I really needed later on.” While she was learning from Hampton she was also learning from his wife. “I had this role model of Gladys Hampton to emulate. She took care of the band, saw to it that everything ran smoothly, that everybody got paid and such. That was the first time I’d ever experienced dealing with a woman who was the boss—and she was a black woman. It was very unusual at that time, and still is.”
Lorraine Carter, as the young singer had begun calling herself, made quite a stir at New York’s Apollo Theater. Jack Schiffman, son of the late Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, recalled his impressions for the Daily News Magazine: “Lionel Hampton introduced a small girl, hair bobbed short, eyes seemingly larger than her face, who burst out on stage, took a deep breath, and sang bebop riffs, a whole machine-gun load of them that turned the house upside down. I never saw an audience turned on so quickly to a new sound.” Hampton began calling her Betty Bebop (which evolved into Betty Carter). But the relationship between the two was a stormy one; Hampton allegedly fired her half a dozen times for mouthing off to him. “I wanted to be with a hipper band—the guys playing bebop, not swing,” Carter told Polygram. “But in retrospect I was right where I needed to be.” She elaborated in the Daily News Magazine, “I couldn’t see the advantage of his making me go out there and improvise every night. But without that training, I might not know how to be spontaneous now.” “And suppose I had been with Dizzy’s band,” she told Pulse!, “The things that were going on there”—the use of heroin among the musicians—“were things I didn’t need to come in contact with. But I didn’t know that then.”
In 1952, after two and a half years of “doing what Hamp wanted me to,” as she told AP writer Campbell, “I struck out to find out what more I could do with myself. I came to New York and got work right away at the Apollo Bar, a couple of doors from the Apollo Theater.” Thus began a grueling period of dues-paying. “I did the usual, playing dives and joints, wherever I could,” she told Pulse! “There were a lot of places around to do the hustling then…. Besides all the clubs that were in New York, we had Philadelphia to work with, and Boston, and Washington, D.C.; all up and down the East Coast there were lots of places to work. And Detroit was still good then, and Chicago.” It was a golden time of opportunity. “There was a big, beautiful music world for us in the ’50s,” she told the Daily News Magazine. “We played and learned together, because we all loved music and musicianship. It wasn’t about money—we weren’t making any of that—it was about a whole community. No one had to dominate. We liked each other. I’d hang around clubs with Sarah Vaughan or Ruth Brown. I played on bills with Sonny Til and the Orioles, the Temptations, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Miles Davis. It didn’t matter what you did; you just had to be good at it. At the Apollo, you could play classical music if you did it well…. Someone should write a book about those days. There was such joy. We thought that world would never end.”
Carter’s hard work led to a theater tour with Miles Davis, which led to a tour with the famed gospel pianist and singer Ray Charles. In the midst of the latter, Charles asked Carter to do a record with him. “He asked me in Baltimore, in the hallway by the dressing rooms,” she recalled in Pulse! “After he asked me, it got silent; I mean, he had ‘Georgia’ going, a bi-iii-ig hit record; he didn’t need me.… I went to his house to work on the tunes, and then went back to the hotel numb because I was really gonna do it. I learned the tunes by thinking about it more than practicing them; we didn’t go over anything more than one time, because I was capable of understanding everything he said to me about what to do and how to do it.” The result was the 1961 classic Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which has been reissued by Dunhill on CD. “It was the one thing that kept my name out in front of people, because I didn’t have any records of my own.”
During the sixties jazz got undercut by rock music, and the industry pressured jazz musicians to commercialize. As Carter told the Daily News Magazine, “the business became about money. Lots of money. And when some jazz players see that, they want some of it. Instead of $500 a night, they think they can make $4,000 in the commercial world. And some do, for a while. But the commercial world is a trap. You have one hit, they want number two, and number three. If you don’t get it, they drop you.” Carter stuck by her own bebop-rooted music and tried to convince her peers to do the same. But as she told Pulse!, “nobody in jazz paid me any attention because I was female and a singer. Had it been a male who said what I said, we might have made a dent—the way [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis is making a dent now, saying a lot of the things that I said a long time ago. I think we might have stopped a lot of jazz artists from switching to commercial stuff.”
Refusing to change her style, Carter found herself shut out by record labels. “What do you do after you’ve tried to sell yourself and nobody wants to buy? That hurts, it really does. Anyway, I decided if I was ever going to record again I should do it myself.” In 1969 she founded her own label, Bet-Car Productions, and, along with a female business partner, assumed control of not only the recording and producing but also the financing, manufacturing, and distribution ends of the business. “I had to do everything myself only because I could not be controlled,” she told Jam Sessions. “I could not be produced by somebody else, telling me what to do; telling me how to be, how to think and how to move.”
As Carter recorded for Bet-Car in the 1970s and continued to perform, her audience grew. But as she told the New York Post, “I realized I was bottling up my musicianship, trying to accommodate, trying not to be too extreme. Because a lot of my peers were talking about, ‘Why don’t you stop doing the bebop? … Why don’t you get a hit record?’ But why should I deal with something that was making me feel bad? … I decided to just stick with my music, to try to improve it, and suddenly I started going to colleges and discovered that there was a whole new audience. And the more interesting it got, the more the audience liked it.”
It seems appropriate that Carter began playing colleges, as she has always been an educator of jazz music. As Cash Box observed, she has been “one of the most eloquent drum-beaters for jazz. She sits on panels, she makes speeches, she has been very vocal in her opinion about what is jazz, what isn’t jazz, and what’s happening in this art form.” What motivates her, as she told Cash Box, is her own “black culture. I want to make these young kids realize that it was the black people who started this wonderful music of jazz, and not Dave Brubeck.” Since the 1970s, her most powerful tool as an educator has been to perform with young sidepeople, often kids straight out of college. “There’s something about having young people play for young people that makes a better impact than, say, five old men,” she told Mother Jones. “So it’s three young musicians and this old person, Grandma, if you want to say, and we get on stage and we work together. The energy is there, the enthusiasm, the fun, the charisma—everything that youth wants. See, without that, there’s no way I can compete with the hip-hoppers.”
Carter’s band members receive an education of their own. Drummer Kenny Washington, who played with Carter from 1978 to 1980, told the Christian Science Monitor that “you have to watch Betty all the time. She has it completely in her mind what she wants. But she doesn’t say you do it my way or not at all. She thrives on suggestions. She wants you to speak what you feel and think. The minute you don’t have any ideas and suggestions, you’re gone.” Carter probably wouldn’t deny that. “I want my musicians to think all the time,” she told the Daily News Magazine, “If somebody plays the same thing 10, 12 times, I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m tired of that. What else you got?’ The other day I gave my drummer some 7/4. He’d never played it before. It’ll give him new tools…. When I improvise, I don’t want a note. I want the note. My piano player is 18. Eighteen. And he knows how to get the note. My bass player sometimes hits a note. But he’ll get it together. I may be the only musician today who’ll tell somebody if I hear a mistake. That’s the way it used to be. You told the truth and no one’s feelings were hurt, because you did it in a positive way. You see potential, you help develop it.”
In 1988, after nearly two decades of running her own label, Carter signed a deal with Polygram’s Verve for both new recordings and reissues of Bet-Car titles. Look What I Got!, her first release on Verve, topped Billboard’s jazz chart and earned her a Grammy nomination. Her latest release is 1990’s Droppin’ Things. She continues to play both the club and college circuits. In the spring of 1991, having been named “Jazz Legend” by the Southern Arts Federation, she lectured and performed at 11 southeastern colleges.
“There’s no describing the joy of getting up on stage and doing your thing and having an audience respond to it,” Carter told the Boston Globe Magazine. “No one has told you what to do. You haven’t been produced by anybody. You’re on stage because you have talent and you know what to do. And you do it, and the audience is out of their heads. That’s what jazz allows you to do. It’s the only art form that allows you to do that. Most commercial art forms are produced. Popular music is produced by someone who tells some kid how to sing the song. Not jazz. You’re free. That’s the difference.”
The Betty Carter Album, Verve, originally released 1976.
The Audience With Betty Carter, Verve, 1981.
Look What I Got!, Verve, 1988.
Ray Charles and Betty Carter, Dunhill, 1988.
The Carmen McRae-Betty Carter Album, Great American Music Hall Records/Fantasy, 1988.
Whatever Happened to Love?, Verve, 1989.
Droppin’ Things, Verve, 1990.
Boston Globe, August 21, 1988.
Cash Box, February 13, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1988.
Daily News Magazine, January 24, 1988.
Jam Sessions, March 1988.
“Jazz South” (newsletter of the Southern Arts Federation), Spring 1990.
London Times, 1985.
Mother Jones, January/February 1991.
Nation, July 30/August 6, 1988.
New York Post, January 26, 1988.
Polygram Jazz publicity biography, 1990.
Pulse!, August 1988.
"Carter, Betty." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-betty
"Carter, Betty." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved July 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-betty
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American singer Betty Carter (1930–1998) forged new territory in the jazz arena with her brilliant improvisations. She has been called the greatest jazz singer of all time in a field traditionally dominated by male performers.
Singer Betty Carter was widely regarded as a leading figure in the world of modern jazz because of her virtuoso vocal ability and total originality in her interpretation of melodies and lyrics. She had a fierce belief that the art of jazz singing should survive her, and to that end supported many young artists and gave them their starts. Her vocal style was stunning in its range and complexity, and was rooted in the classic "bebop" music of her early heroes, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Carter was particularly known for her frenetic live performances, such as the one at the Village Vanguard in 1970.
Singer's Virtuosity Made Itself Known Early
The woman who came to be known to the world as Betty Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in the industrial city of Flint, Michigan. (Some sources say she was born in 1929, but Carter's teenage habit of lying about her age to get into local nightclubs indicates the later date is probably correct). In search of some relief from the financial ravages of the Great Depression, the Carters, a strict Baptist family, moved to Detroit to try to find work in the munitions factories there. Instead, her father found a job as a church musical director, and Carter, who was already demonstrating a strong interest in music, took piano lessons at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. She got her first performance experience while singing in her father's church choir.
As a high school student in the early 1940s, Carter became fascinated with the popular new "bebop" music, a form of jazz that grew out of the Big Band era of the 1920s and 1930s and was characterized by an innovative approach to rhythms and articulations. Listening to 45–RPM records of the music at the local soda counter, she took to it immediately and started making up her own songs. Word of her talent got around, and at age sixteen she was permitted to sit in with famed jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker during a session he played in Detroit. After winning a local singing talent contest in the jazz–loving city, Carter became a regular at the local night clubs as a singer and pianist, performing with such greats as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singer Sarah Vaughn, and jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine.
Featured Singer with Hampton
By the time jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton came to town in 1948, Carter was only eighteen, but already an established and respected part of the local jazz scene. After hearing the girl perform, Hampton hired her as his featured vocalist. Trying to add some professional allure to her plain name (she was still known by her given name), he dubbed her Lorraine Carter. However, after working with her for a few months, the two began to have disagreements over the singer's wild interpretations of music. Hampton was irritated by the younger performer's constant tinkering and flights of fancy with timing, lyrics, and rhythm. The more traditional Hampton sarcastically nicknamed Carter "Betty Bebop." She disliked the name and resented it because she wanted to do more in her career than be known for "scatting" (a kind of bebop singing in which performers improvise nonsense syllables instead of lyrics as they follow the melody). But the moniker stuck, and her stage name soon became Betty Carter. From 1948 to 1951, Hampton fired the willful singer seven times, but took her back at his wife Gladys's urging. (The no–nonsense Gladys would contribute to Carter's development of herself as a strong, independent woman).
Hampton and Carter finally split for good in 1951 and at age 21 Carter left for New York City to sing with some groups there. Over the next several years, she appeared at the popular Apollo Theater in Harlem and other clubs with Gillespie, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughn, Thelonius Monk, and other headliners. Her first album was Betty Carter, released by the Epic label in 1953. By 1955, she had made another album, singing with then–unknown pianist Ray Bryant on the sensibly titled Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant. (A 1956 recording of duets with Gigi Gryce would not be released until 1980). In 1958, Carter made two more albums that were greeted with indifference: I Can't Help It and Out There. However, she had become highly popular in local jazz circles because of her suggestive, sometimes raunchy interpretations of classic songs and off–beat, crazy scatting. For the next two years the witty, often sarcastic singer was on the road with pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who in 1959 suggested to rhythm–and–blues singer–pianist Ray Charles that he partner with her for some duet recordings. Meanwhile, Carter signed on with ABC–Paramount in 1960 for her first recording contract, completing The Modern Sound of Betty Carter later that year.
Partnership with Charles A Hit
In 1961, Carter and Charles, who immediately fell in love with her husky, unusual voice, teamed up to produce what would become a jazz legend—the album Baby, It's Cold Outside. Their sexy take on the classic song was a giant hit, although Charles received most of the attention for the work. It was Carter's first and only foray into mainstream jazz. She decided later that year to retire from music and concentrate on raising her two children, Miles and Kagle. Her marriage (to James Redding in 1960) had suffered from her husband's pressure to commercialize her style and make it less "far out." They divorced and he left her with responsibility for their young boys.
Carter's sabbatical from music lasted until 1970, but she came out of retirement to make the album 'Round Midnight on the Atco label in 1963 and then in 1965 the album Inside Betty Carter with United Artists. However, neither production did well, with critics finding the music too challenging when compared to the suavity of her work with Ray Charles. Carter's occasional live appearances at local clubs did little to keep the public from forgetting about her, but she was well received on college campuses (especially among young women). During the mid–1960s she performed live at clubs with such diverse musicians as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and T–Bone Walker.
Finally, Carter returned to jazz full–time in 1970, but her first effort, the album Roulette, a recording of a live show in 1969, flopped. The album that followed, confusingly titled 'Round Midnight and based on the same 1969 show, also sank into oblivion. However, savvy critics also realized that, while completely "out there," the discs demonstrated Carter's fully developed talent for the first time.
Opened Own Record Label
Frustrated at the resistance of record companies to her music and style, which perhaps was exacerbated by the singer's reputation for being difficult to work with, Carter decided in 1970 to open her own label, naming it Bet–Car. She would release her own music on this label for the next twenty years. Heading out on her own proved a fortuitous decision. With creative autonomy now and freedom from pressure to conform to mass–market sensibilities, Carter began enjoying her chosen profession more than ever. Her live performance at New York City's trendy Village Vanguard jazz club in 1970, now credited as perhaps the best live jazz performance ever, was recorded and released as At the Village Vanguard. Critics still recommend the recording as the best introduction to Carter's style and virtuoso talent for improvisation.
Carter's other productions during the 1970s were The Betty Carter Album and Now It's My Turn. She also appeared in the 1975 stage show Don't Call Me Man, which helped her publicity somewhat. To finance her new endeavor and pay the bills at home, however, she spent most of her time during that decade touring and performing live, amazing her audiences with her frantic energy and playful, weird, or even shocking interpretations of popular tunes within a tightly controlled framework. She also began taking with her a jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) of young performers whose members often changed, providing a training ground for new talent and, according to Carter, giving her constant exposure to fresh ideas and energy that enhanced her own work. One of the artists she mentored was pianist Benny Green. Performing live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977 and 1978 brought Carter back into the public consciousness and formed the basis of a strong comeback. Many jazz fans and critics still regard her 1979 album Audience with Betty Carter as her strongest performance, some even calling it the finest example of vocal jazz to date.
Signed on with Powerful Label
Carter maintained a busy schedule into the 1980s, recording the orchestra–backed album Whatever Happened to Love? in 1982 and a duet concert with Carmen McRae in San Francisco in 1987. By then, even the market–driven recording industry had taken notice of Carter's new–found popularity, and in 1988 Polygram signed her to its revived Verve label. They agreed to reissue all the recordings Bet–Car had released over the years—a deal that gave Carter's work much wider exposure than her private label could ever have given it. Later that year she recorded a new album under the Verve name: Look What I Got. The work received rave reviews on its release, and brought Carter her first and only Grammy Award later that year. (It was also the first independently produced jazz album to win the award). The public had finally learned to appreciate the singer's challenging, utterly original style.
Now in her 60s, the singer began to produce more music than ever. While working for Verve during the 1990s, she recorded one hit album after another, including Droppin' Things (1990) and It's Not About the Melody (1992), both of which received Grammy nominations. Feed the Fire came out in 1994 and I'm Yours, You're Mine in 1996. She also performed at New York City's prestigious Lincoln Center in 1993 and at the White House for President Bill Clinton in 1994; he would award her with a National Medal of Arts in 1996.
Meanwhile, in 1993 her interest in and support of talented young musicians led her to create the Jazz Ahead program to identify and encourage outstanding emerging artists. Sandy Carter quoted Carter on Z Magazine online as having said, "After me, there are no more jazz singers. I'm going to die eventually, and I don't want [jazz singing] to die with me." The program was originally held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and gave musicians a chance to meet and work with Carter herself. Since 1998, the program has been held annually at the Kennedy Center in New York City, gathering together new artists and pairing them with experienced mentors to help them succeed in their chosen fields. Such performers as Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson have had their careers launched by the program.
Carter was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and succumbed to the disease at her home in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn on September 26, 1998. Despite her discomfort, she continued to work until shortly before her death, even headlining the fifth annual Beijing Jazz festival in late 1997.
Bauer, William R., Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter, London: United Music Publishers, Ltd., 2003.
Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1998 (reprint).
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Washington Post, September 30, 1998.
"Betty Carter 1929—1998," BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/jazz/profiles/betty–carter.shtml (January 2, 2005).
"Betty Carter: Biography," VH1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/betty–carter/bio.html (January 2, 2005).
"Betty Carter: You Go, Girl," African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.com/african–american–history/888/Betty–Carter.html (January 6, 2005).
"Hall of Fame: 08/01/1999," Downbeat Magazine, http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=stories&subsect;=story–detail&sid;=69 (January 7, 2005).
"I Never Wanted Anything But to Sing Jazz," Jazz Institute of Chicago, http://www.jazzinchicago.org/Default.aspx?TabID=43&newsType;=ArticleView&articleId;=140 (January 5, 2005).
"Pathfinders: Betty Carter," Womanrock.com, http://www.womanrock.com/features/betty–carter.html (January 3, 2005).
"Remembering Betty Carter," Z Magazine,http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/jan99carter.htm (January 3, 2005).
"Carter, Betty." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carter-betty
"Carter, Betty." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/carter-betty
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Carter, Betty 1930–1998
Betty Carter 1930–1998
Betty Carter is acclaimed as a giant of modern jazz, a role model who passes along the ideal of artistic integrity to younger jazz artists, and a female trailblazer in a musical genre long dominated by men. Accompanied by a pure small-jazz combo—piano, drums, and bass—Carter evolved a complex but personal vocal style rooted in the classic bebop music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. She is a vocal virtuoso and an utter original.
Betty Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones in the auto-manufacturing city of Flint, Michigan, on May 16, 1930 (some sources give the year as 1929, but the 1930 date seems preferable in view of the fact that Carter as a teenager often lied about her age in order to gain admittance to jazz clubs). Carter’s family endured the devastation that the Great Depression wreaked upon Flint, and moved to Detroit in search of work in munitions factories.
While her father became a choir director at the Chapel Hill Baptist Church, Carter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and became fascinated by jazz while a student at the city’s Northwestern High School. She frequented a soda counter with a jukebox full of 45 RPM records that introduced her to the musicians who created the daring new improvisatory music called bebop. Using the stage name Lorene Carter, she entered talent contests and toured small clubs in Michigan and Ohio, sometimes performing with nationally known bebop ensembles as they toured the area.
These performances attracted the notice of swing bandleader Lionel Hampton, who hired her for regular engagements with his band beginning in 1948. Carter herself preferred the more modern music of bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, and the annoyed Hampton reacted by giving Carter the nickname Betty Bebop, which evolved into Betty Carter. Carter toured with Hampton’s band through 1951, making a well-received appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. However, she was fired as a result of disagreements with the bandleader.
After leaving Hampton’s ensemble, Carter spent most
At a Glance…
Born Lillie Mae Jones, May 16, 1930, in Flint, Ml; Married James Redding, later divorced; children: two sons—Myles and Kagle Redding. Religion: raised Baptist. Died September 26, 1998 in Brooklyn, NY.
Career: Jazz vocalist. Toured with Lionel Hampton’s band, 1948–51; toured and recorded album with Ray Charles, 1960–61; formed own record company, Bet-Car Productions, 1969; appeared in stage show Don’t Call Me Man, 1975; continued performing and recording through 1990s; released critically acclaimed album I’m Yours, You’re Mine, 1997, at age of 66.
Awards: Three Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Album; numerous jazz industry awards.
Addresses: Production company —Bet-Car Productions, 117 St. Felix St., Brooklyn, NY 11217.
of the 1950s building a name for herself, appearing at small jazz clubs up and down the East Coast and carving out an original style as she interacted with such prominent jazz figures of the time as Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. She recorded an album, Betty Carter, for the Epic label in 1953, and continued to record sporadically over the next few years. By the end of the decade her efforts had paid off to such an extent that she was tabbed to tour with R & B singer and pianist Ray Charles, then in the midst of his jazz phase.
Charles at the time was one of the most popular musicians in the country, and the duet album the two singers recorded, 1961’s Ray Charles and Betty Carter, remains a jazz classic. Carter had no trouble keeping up with her more famous partner. She told Pulse magazine: [W]e didn’t go over anything more than one time, because I was capable of understanding everything he said to me about what to do and how to do it.”
Like those of many other jazz musicians, Carter’s career suffered during the ascendancy of rock music in the 1960s. Pressured to release a commercially oriented album, Carter stuck to her guns and defended the sometimes inaccessible bebop style that she cultivated and loved. She married, but even her husband pressured her to commercialize her style, and the marriage ended in divorce, leaving Carter with two young sons. At the decade’s end, finding herself without recording opportunities, Carter formed her own label, Bet-Car, and began to chart a wholly independent creative course. Her music deepened, and she began to cultivate an uncanny capacity for rhythmic surprises within a tightly controlled framework. She found a ready audience for her musical experimentation on the nation’s college campuses, where young female fans especially admired her.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Betty Carter’s audience continued to grow. Major milestones were a New York stage show, Don’t Call Me Man, in 1975 and appearances at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in 1977 and 1978. Maintaining control over not only her recording career but her production and booking schedules, Carter became a fixture of jazz nightclub scenes nationwide. In 1988 she was signed to the Verve label, perhaps the premier purveyor of top-quality recorded jazz; her deal with the label included reissues of her earlier Bet-Car releases.
Carter has relished her role as a senior figure and standard-bearer of jazz and black culture generally. In recent years her efforts have been geared more and more toward jazz education. Her band has been a proving ground for a long succession of young players; her concerts gain piquancy from the interplay between energetic youth and artistic mastery. Carter has conducted school workshops and crusaded for the inclusion of jazz in college coursework, especially at black institutions. Her influence on jazz of the 1990s has been enormous, with the phenomenally successful vocalist Cassandra Wilson citing her as a major influence. In 1995 Down Beat writer John Ephland pointed to Carter’s “playful and ingenious approaches to lyrics and overall sound” as a basis for Wilson’s style.
Carter’s own recording activities continued to generate critical acclaim in the 1990s. In 1997 Down Beat critic Thomas Conrad, calling Carter “the most instrumentally conceived of jazz vocalists, capable of melodic improvisations as unpredictable as any saxophonist this side of Omette [Coleman],” wrote of Carter’s new album, I’m Yours, You’re Mine, that “[t]he cumulative effect is narcotic.… How many singers can you name who have made one of their strongest recordings in their 66th year?” Conrad likewise pointed to the way Carter could find young players “who always sound exceptional when they play with her.” At century’s end, she was nothing less than the matriarch of jazz. Carter died of pancreatic cancer at home in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1998. She will be surely missed by her fans.
The Carmen McRae–Betty Carter Album, Hall/Fantasy, 1988.
Look What I Got, Verve, 1988.
Ray Charles and Betty Carter, Dunhill, 1988 (reissue).
Whatever Happened to Love?, Verve, 1989.
Droppin’ Things, Verve, 1990.
Finally, EMI, 1991 (reissue).
It’s Not About the Melody, Verve, 1992.
Feel the Fire, Verve, 1994.
Inside Betty Carter, Capitol, 1994 (reissue).
Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant, Columbia, 1996 (reissue).
I’m Yours, You’re Mine, Verve, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 6, Gale, 1992.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed.; Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Down Beat, January 1995, p. 22; January 1997, p. 49; January 1998, p. 66.
Pulse, August 1988.
Vogue, October 1983, p. 538.
Washington Post, March 21, 1997, p. WW13; March 24, 1997, p. B7.
Additional information found online at http://www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/national/obitcarter.html.
—James M. Manheim
"Carter, Betty 1930–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-betty-1930-1998
"Carter, Betty 1930–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carter-betty-1930-1998