Bopping wit Betty

Betty Carter once threatened to become the forgotten first lady of bebop, but her career has turned into a triumph of persistence and determination not to compromise. Joe Alexander investigates.

Stories about Betty Carter‘s obstinate refusal to compromise her artistic principles are legendary, but one seems to sum up not only that determination, but also its very early roots. better than any other.

When the singer first appeared on the jazz scene in the late 1940s, her jam sessions with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie caught the attention of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. who hired her for his successful big band. Hampton was no bebopper, and Carter, then working under the name Lorraine Carter, was interested in nothing else.

The leader would bait her by constantly demanding to know which was the better band. his own basically swing-oriented outfit, or Gillespie‘s bebop one. Carter, unable to compromise her principles even then, would unfailingly plump for Dizzy, and each time Hampton would fire her. The vibraphonist‘s wife. however, was a staunch admirer of Carter‘s work, and would have her re-instated.

It was Hampton, too. who saddled her with the name Betty Bebop, a title he would use whenever he brought her on stage, usually for a tune he wanted scatted, Carter‘s speciality. She hated it. but the name began to stick. so for once she did compromise, and adopted the stage name of Betty Carter.

Carter is unique among the major jazz singers in having stuck single-mindedly with the purest form ofthe music. While Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae. Nancy Wilson and the rest of her peers ventured into all kinds of commercial recordings. Carter stuck grimly with an improvisational vocal style rooted in bebop. A major success in the 505, Carter‘s career took a

downturn when fashions shifted in the 608. When no major label would release her music. she formed her own Bet-(‘ar label in 1970 to do so.

‘The big record companies wanted rock records and hit records.‘ she recalls ofthat time. "They wanted to make money and they wanted to make it quick. Idccided that ifl wanted to do what I want. then the best way was to do it myself.‘

These days. though. Carter is no longer a well-kept secret. Always highly respected by her fellow musicians and the c6terie of fans who had followed her career. Carter got the break she needed when Village Voice picked up on her performance in an off-B roadway play called Don '1 Call Me Man in 1975. All ofa sudden. she was being heralded in Time and .N’emweek as an unknown jazz genius.

She has built steadily on that success. signing to the revived Verve label (her Look What I Got.’ album won a Grammy in 1989). and is widely cited as a major influence by a new generation ofyoung singers. including Dianne Reeves. Cassandra Wilson. and. at least in terms of her extravagant

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on-stage gestures. Anita Baker.

Carter herself likes to pick her backing trio from young and unknown musicians. reasoning that ‘if

i the audience sees me performing with three old

people. they are going to think it‘s old-fashioned music. I pick young musicians for their enthusiasm and energy. They are inexperienced. but that‘s

3 where I step in. because I have the discipline.‘

Despite that Grammy, Carter‘s real forte lies in live performance. She is the most physical of singers in terms of her gestures and on-stage mannerisms. and a genuinely original interpreter. When she performs a standard. she usually twists it around so much that it effectively becomes another tune anyway.

‘()lder people sometimes resent the way I treat standards.‘ she admits. 'but those melodies have

i been done straight by thousands ol‘singers.

Everyone knows them. so why do it the same way again'."

1 Betty ('urler and her Trio play a! 'I'mmii'uy Glasgoti' on Saturday 2‘).


The List ZSJune- l 1 July 1991 17