A fond farewell note to a pure jazz singer Betty Carter never compromised, and jazz is poorer for her passing.

October 04, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Betty Carter died last Saturday at age 68 of pancreatic cancer, jazz lost more than just a great vocalist. It lost some of the essence of jazz singing itself.

It's not a loss the average listener is likely to notice, sad to say, for Carter never achieved the sort of fame enjoyed by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson. Indeed, there were many outside the jazz world who never heard her, or even heard of her.

Those others, after all, managed to cross over into the world of pop, occasionally even cracking the Top 40. Fitzgerald was famous enough to do TV commercials, and even listeners born years after the Big Band era knew the likes of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

Betty Carter, by contrast, was a jazz singer through and through. "There's really only one jazz singer - only one," Carmen McRae once said. "Betty Carter." But even as the depth of her talents earned her the respect of her peers, it did little to attract a wider audience.

That's not to say Carter toiled in obscurity. In 1961, Ray Charles invited her to join him on his first release for ABC-Paramount. "Ray Charles and Betty Carter" (recently reissued by Rhino) may not have been the most popular of Charles' albums, but the collection of coy duets did well enough, even generating a minor hit with "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

After she won a jazz Grammy in 1988 for the album "Look What I Got!", Carter made it onto TV and into the pages of Rolling Stone. She even did a few appearances on "The Bill Cosby Show," ensuring that average Americans at least saw her.

Pop, though, was not Carter's milieu. Lionel Hampton summed up her sound and attitude when he dubbed her "Betty Bebop," a nickname that reflected both the fluid agility of her vocal improvisations and the uncompromising seriousness of her aesthetic.

Born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930, in Flint, Mich., Carter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory and was a professional singer by the age of 16. She sat in with touring be-bop musicians (including Charlie Parker) as they came through Detroit and within two years had developed enough polish and potential to earn a job with Hampton's band. Over the next few decades, she would work with such luminaries as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and eventually ended up leading a quartet of her own.

In later years, Carter became known as a connoisseur of up-and-coming talent, and over the years she worked with some awesomely talented young pianists. Among the alumni of her group are such now-famous names as Cyrus Chestnut, John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, Jacky Terrasson, Benny Green, Onaje Alan Gumbs and Stephen Scott.

Despite her sterling reputation among jazz musicians, Carter was considered almost completely uncommercial by record companies and was without a recording contract for over a decade and a half. Undaunted, she formed her own label, Bet-Car, in 1971 and released a handful of critically acclaimed (though commercially negligible) albums before finally being signed by Verve in 1987.

Although Carter made plenty of studio recordings over the years, her best work was usually done before live audiences. As she once said, "An audience makes me think, makes me reach for things I'd never try in the studio." Perhaps that explains why her most lauded album was titled "Audience with Betty Carter" (a 1979 Bet-Car release, now available on Verve), punningly pointing out the almost collaborative nature of her concert performances.

For one thing, Carter was never one to hide her feelings behind a facade of professionalism. Blessed with a quick, puckish wit, she loved to lampoon the inanity of pop lyrics. She also had a legendary temper and would lambaste band members - or even members of the audience - if their behavior rubbed her the wrong way.

But the biggest reason her live recordings had more vitality than her studio work was that Carter was an improviser above all else, and as such loved the spontaneity and unpredictability of a concert crowd.

Of course, merely calling her an "improviser" doesn't quite seem appropriate. Sure, Carter could scat-sing better than almost anyone, and her wordless solos boasted a fluidity and luster any saxophonist would envy.

Carter's improvisational approach didn't end there, though. Unlike other jazz singers, who would offer a fairly straight rendition of the melody and chorus before heading off for parts unknown with the solo, Carter would impose herself on the whole of the song.

She loved to twist the words of a song around, either to amplify their emotional significance or mock their banality, and would sometimes take such liberties with the notes in the verse and chorus that the original tune would be rendered almost unrecognizable. Not for nothing did she call a 1992 album "It's Not About the Melody."

It was this total reinterpretation of words and music that led many to insist that Carter was the only true jazz singer around. And now that she's gone, it's hard to imagine who will fill that role.

There are still jazz singers whose interpretive sense is as individual and improvisatory as Carter's. Sheila Jordan, for example, will take as many chances in her performances as Carter did, while Ethel Ennis can be just as sly and insightful. Unfortunately, neither records or tours with any frequency.

Of the younger generation, Cassandra Wilson has done much to extend Carter's aesthetic beyond the boundaries of be-bop. But her recent recordings draw from such a broad range of sources that some critics have hesitated to consider her music jazz. That's a shame, because such a judgment discounts the singularity of what Wilson does. It also ignores the fact that the main thing that made Betty Carter special wasn't that she sang jazz, but that nobody else sang it like her.

To hear examples of Betty Carter's music, call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6146. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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