Carter, Betty (1929–1999)

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Carter, Betty (1929–1999)

American jazz great, regarded as one of the few true jazz singers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Name variations: Lorene Carter. Born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1929, in Flint, Michigan; died of pancreatic cancer at her home in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26, 1998; father was a defense-plant worker and choir director; grew up in Detroit; studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory; married; children: two sons, Myles and Kagle.

Betty Carter grew up on welfare during the depression and became interested in jazz while at Northwestern High School in Detroit. After studying piano at the Detroit Conservatory, she won an amateur show at 16, singing "The Man I Love" (1945). She went professional the following year, using the stage name Lorene Carter. Carter quickly began to perform with America's best jazz artists. While still a teenager, she sang with Charlie Parker. From 1948 to 1951, she toured with Lionel Hampton. By the time she toured with Miles Davis in 1958–59, she was calling herself Betty Be-Bop Carter. In 1961, Carter and Ray Charles made an album on the ABC Paramount label; her duet with Charles, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," became a jazz classic. She toured with Charles' show visiting Japan, France, and Great Britain from 1963 to 1968. Record companies, however, did not support her, so she was finally forced to start her own company, Bet-Car Records and Lil-Jay Productions, to provide fans with her sound. Carter would not make concessions to public taste, preferring complex renditions of popular songs, and she continued to make albums that are now collector's items. Forming her own trio from 1975 to 1980, Carter won great acclaim at the Newport Jazz Festivals and at Carnegie Hall in 1977 and 1978. In 1988, she released Look What I Got! (Polygram/Verve) to rave reviews.

Known as the godmother of jazz because she taught and nurtured young musical talent, Carter guided pianists John Hicks and Mulgrew Miller, bassists Buster Williams and Dave Holland, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Lewis Nash. "I'm not an instrument teacher," she said. "But what I can give young musicians is a concept—of knowing how to deal with an audience, and to encourage them to be an individual and not use others to copy from, which is especially important in jazz." Carter also founded "Jazz Ahead" in 1993, a music program that brought about 20 young musicians to New York during Spring Break for a weekend of concerts. "She's wary of the syndrome which makes millionaires of singers and leaves musicians in the pits," writes Mark Jacobsen in the Village Voice. "She decided it was, for the most part, musicians who are responsible for creation in jazz, and resolved to take her lumps with them rather than go to Vegas and wear chiffon." In October 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Carter with the National Medal of Arts.


Jacobson, Mark. "Don't Call Me Man," in Village Voice. August 18, 1975, p. 100.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Gale Research, 1992.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Carter, Betty (1929–1999)

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