Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Carter, Betty (Lillie Mae Jones)

Betty Carter's performances juxtaposed scat singing with animated syncopations, which gave her a unique sound amongst bebop vocalists. Her idiosyncratic renditions of popular songs set a new standard for what the voice can achieve in contemporary jazz.

Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1930 in Flint, Michigan, then moved to Detroit. Carter’s father, James Jones, was the musical director of a Detroit church and her mother, Bessie, was a housewife. As a child, Betty received her first music education at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano. As a teenager, she began to listen to jazz, despite objections from her mother, who felt jazz was sinful.

Carter soon fell in love with the modern-jazz sounds of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. She would skip school in order to listen to bebop singles on the jukebox at a nearby soda shop. She began to memorize the solos from bebop songs, and eagerly anticipated hearing Parker and Gillespie perform live whenever they came to town.

At the age of sixteen, Carter won a local talent contest, then began to sing at Sunday afternoon cabaret gigs. By her late teens she had sat in with many of the era's most forward-looking jazz musicians including her jukebox idols Parker and Gillespie, and trumpeter Miles Davis.

At the age of eighteen, she received an invitation to join vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, after she was invited to sing with his band at a concert in Detroit. This impromptu audition secured her a job singing with the group, which she held from 1948 until 1951. During these years, she was initially billed as “Lorraine Carter,” until Hampton's wife Gladys gave her the nickname “Betty Bebop,” which she reportedly despised. Soon after, Carter officially changed her professional name to “Betty Carter.”

Gladys, however, became a model for Carter in other ways. She oversaw her husband's business, and Carter admired and learned from this example. With Hampton, Carter also learned how to orchestrate and transpose music from alto saxophonist Bobby Plater.

While Carter received critical acclaim for performing with Hampton, their working relationship was difficult. On several occasions, Lionel fired her for insubordination. After two and a half years, in 1951, Betty decided to quit the band in 1951. She then moved to New York City and began a period of playing at small venues. She supplemented her income by working at the Apollo Bar in Harlem, just steps away from the Apollo Theater.

During the early 1950s, Carter began to sing with several notable musicians including drummer Max Roach and an up-and-coming pianist named Ray Bryant. The result of her collaboration with Bryant was the 1955 album Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant, which featured drummer Jo Jones, bassist Wendell Marshall and saxophonist Jerome Richardson.

On April 25, 1956, Carter recorded the album Social Call, which included pianist Hank Jones and bassist Milt Hinton. Betty followed up with Out There in 1958 alongside trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, bassist Sam Jones and pianist Wynton Kelly. She also performed widely at this time. In 1960, Carter met her future husband James Romeo Redding at a nightclub. In August of that year, she recorded the album The Modern Sounds of Betty Carter with the Richard Wess Orchestra.

One highlight of this album is the song “Mean to Me.” Carter begins by singing the words unaccompanied, and slowly builds up excitement by incorporating large intervallic leaps between the notes she chooses. The excitement is further amplified when the drummer enters playing only his hi-hat cymbals, creating a sense of foreshadowing. Horns then enter in the background, which casts her vocal performance into harmonic relief.

Not long after recording this album, Carter began tour cities of the eastern seaboard, including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and others. Miles Davis then invited her to join him for a tour of national theaters. Miles also recommended the singer to pianist Ray Charles, who also hired her for a tour.

During a stop in Baltimore, Charles asked Carter if she wanted to record an album with him. The result was the 1961 album Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which featured the duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The song became a hit and introduced Carter's talents to popular music audiences. She remained a part of Charles's live show until 1963.

That year, Carter toured Japan with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and in 1964 she brought her act to London, where she was well-received by both the public and critics. 1964 also saw the release of her album Inside Betty Carter, which featured guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Bob Crenshaw, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Roy McCurdy.

As the 1960s progressed and the audience for jazz began to dwindle, music-industry executives pressured jazz artists, especially singers, to commercialize their sound to boost record sales. Carter, however, was steadfast in her commitment to jazz, and her opportunities to record began to dry up. She then took time off to raise her sons Myles and Kagle, though she continued to perform in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

Lacking the support of an established record label, Carter decided to start her own. In 1971, “Bet-Car Productions” became responsible for not only recording and promoting her music, but for the manufacturing and distributing her music as well. During her years as a record company impresario, she received praise for her 1972 album The Betty Carter Album and her 1976 album Now Its My Turn. In 1972, Carter divorced and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

By striking out as an independent, Carter managed to develop and maintain an audience, unlike many of her peers at this time. In 1975, Betty made an appearance in Howard Moore’s musical Don’t Call Me Man. The resulting publicity led to a number of club engagements, and on March 13, 1976, she made an appearance on the popular television show Saturday Night Live.

Starting in 1978, Carter began to bring younger musicians into her band, such as drummer Kenny Washington. In 1979 she released the album The Audience with Betty Carter, which featured Washington, pianist John Hicks and bassist Curtis Lundy. A highlight of the album is her rendition of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things.”

Carter launches the song at a blistering tempo, which she effortlessly navigates by inflecting the melody with bright articulations and motives. As the song progresses, she starts to replace a few of the song's words with different syllables, making it her own. The uncompromising performances of Washington, Hicks and Lundy serve to augment her powerful performance and provide a novel spin on this cherished classic.

The following year, Carter was the subject of director Michelle Parkerson’s film But Then, She’s Betty Carter. The film incorporates interviews and live footage to tell her life story. In 1982, Betty released the album Whatever Happened to Love?, a live album that was recorded at the Bottom Line in New York. In 1988, as audiences began to return to jazz and after nearly two decades of running her own label, she signed with Verve Records.

Carter’s first release on Verve was the 1988 album Look What I Got!, which topped Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums Chart and earned her a Grammy Nomination. Betty followed up the album with her 1990 release Droppin’ Things where she was accompanied by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, pianist Marc Carey, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Betty’s best work with the ensemble is the album’s title track.

The song begins with a fiery introduction in ¾ waltz time which easily sets up an energetic feel. Taking advantage of the malleable nature of this time signature, Carter’s use of scat syllables becomes an exercise in different phrasings and textures which expand the atmospheric nature of the song. During her solo, Carter implements neutral words which demonstrate her masterful ability to make a purely melodic statement that is on par with the solos of Hubbard and Handy.

In the spring of 1991, Carter began a lecture tour of eleven colleges upon being named a “Jazz Legend” by the Southern Arts Federation. The following year, Betty released the album It’s Not About the Melody. In 1993, she established the Jazz Ahead program, a program that was hosted by the Kennedy Center that brings musicians to New York in order to perform with her.

In 1994, Carter recorded the album Feed the Fire alongside pianist Geri Allen, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The same year, Betty performed at the White House and was a headliner at Verve Records’ fiftieth anniversary celebration at Carnegie Hall. 1994 also saw her being inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. In January 1996, Carter recorded her album I’m Yours, You’re Mine. The album reached the number twenty-five position on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums chart. In 1997, Carter was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.

Carter passed away from pancreatic cancer on Saturday, September 26, 1998 at her home in New York City. Betty is survived by her two sons, Myles and Kagle Redding. In 1999, she was posthumously inducted into Down Beat Magazine’s “Jazz Hall of Fame.”

Select Discography

As a leader:

Social Call (1956)

Out There (1958)

The Modern Sound of Betty Carter (1960)

Inside Betty Carter (1964)

The Betty Carter Album (1972)

Now Its My Turn (1976)

The Audience with Betty Carter (1979)

Whatever Happened to Love? (1982)

Look What I Got! (1988)

Droppin’ Things (1990)

Its Not About the Melody (1992)

Feed the Fire (1993)

With Ray Bryant

Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant (1955)

With Ray Charles

Ray Charles and Betty Carter (1961)

Contributor: Eric Wendell