Audio Geek...Singer/Songwriter/Iconoclast...Betty Carter
I LOVE BETTY CARTER.
I just wanted to get that out of the way.
Betty Carter was my favorite jazz vocalist when I was a kid. And still is.
Yeah, I listened to Cleo Laine, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Annie Ross of Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, as well as the more experimental Jeanne Lee. I hadn't yet found pianist/vocalist Shirley Horne. I also listened to the more pop-sounds of Nancy Wilson (she could break my heart every time I heard her sing, "Guess Who I Saw Today"; no question mark needed (sigh...)) and Dinah Washington. I thought they were all wonderful in their own way.
But Betty Carter, aka ...But She's Betty Carter... (now out-of-print) blew my mind with her phrasing and arrangements. How she used her voice, worked a note and sang all around the meter, behind it, in front of it and "tight" on top of it (e.g. the classic, "But Beautiful, and her own, "Look What I Got"). Then there was Carter's work as a band leader, she also produced her own records, and ran her own label, Bet-Car when she got the reputation for being "difficult" i.e., knowing what she wanted, and couldn't get a label to release her work. She started with Lionel Hampton's band, their frequent disagreements being smoothed over by his wife Gladys, who was apparently a, if not the, major managerial power behind the band. Carter recalls that Gladys Hampton wanted the young singer to stay long enough to give her chops a solid foundation before she went solo. After going solo in the sixties, getting married, having two children and starting her record label she also she started mentoring young musicians, whom she recruited for her band. They called it, "The University of Betty Carter." Both she and Abbey Lincoln have been renowned for this mentoring over the decades, as well as their songwriting skills. As one critic noted, most jazz musicians are known for their compositions as well as their musicianship and performance work, with the notable exception of vocalist. Lincoln and Carter (and to a lesser degree Billie Holiday) have been exceptions to this during the 20th century. Younger jazz vocalists Rene Marie and Cassandra Wilson have both carried on this songwriting legacy in their careers.
NPR produced an audio documentary of almost a full hour's length, Betty Carter: Fiercely Individual, narrated by the singularly voiced Nancy Wilson. They recently re-aired the documentary(airdate 14 August 2008). Betty Carter was seriously fierce, and a true original. Check it out.
• Verve Music Group's Better Carter page.
• Betty Carter page on JazzSingers.com.
• Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead Music Residency program for young people at Kennedy Center.
• BBC - Radio 3 Jazz Profile of Carter.
• Tim Cramm's Unofficial Betty Carter page.