Jazz Institute of Chicago

Betty Carter

Betty Carter
by Stuart Nicholson

Sounds (Movin' on). I think I got it now. Caribbean sea. The trolley song. Everything I have is yours. I'll buy you a star. I could write a book. Can't we talk it over/Either it's love or it isn't. Deep night. Spring can really hang you up the most. Tight. Fake. So.... My favourite things. Open the door (theme song).

Throughout her career Betty Carter committed herself without compromise to the art of the jazz vocal. She remained true to a set of values forged when bop was setting the musical agenda, refusing to succumb to the blandishments of commerce and remaining impervious to the conceits of record producers.

This unequivocal stance while relentlessly perfecting her own wholly individual style, of shaping it while at the same time creating a context wholeheartedly in the jazz idiom in which to perform, had its price. As the end of the 1970s approached she was working in semi-obscurity to an audience she had developed by personal appearances and through her own poorly distributed Bet-Car label. A gloomy prognosis in the Village Voice feared she might die an unknown genius.

However, by 1989, after several deserving but unsuccessful nominations she finally won a Grammy for Look What I Got (+Verve 835661-2), recorded in 1988 for the reconstituted Verve label. With it her career took off. Betty Carter, so often overlooked in favor of more easily acceptable offerings of lesser jazz vocalists was, after 40 years in the business, in danger of becoming an overnight success.

Although only twelve years separated Carter[i] from Ella Fitzgerald and only five from Sarah Vaughan, she is the logical extension of Fitzgerald's stand-alone scat extemporizations and Vaughan's ability to harness technique to take you to places a song's composer never dreamed. "In the fifties when I was brought up, we were brought up to be different," she once explained. "I could not be an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughan and make it."[ii]

As a result she developed a style quite unlike any singer in jazz. Imposing herself on her material in a way that no other singer, with the honorable exception of Leo Watson, has managed, her unique process of creative distortion refracts the melodic contours of a song like images glimpsed in a hall of mirrors. Seldom, if ever, singing the melody as written, "The young kids I sing for have never heard the songs I sing, so the melody means nothing and the older ones know the melody and can hum it without my help,"[iii] she creates an aural drama that in live performance is underlined by her intensely personal choreography.

As Will Friedwald has pointed out, she "Combines composition (music and lyrics), arrangement, performance and improvisation into a single integrated statement...she works them into something more than a style, more than an approach or a point of view, but an entire musical universe."[iv]

Carter's 'musical universe' provides dramatic validity of the jazz singer's art. For years jazz critique has been hamstrung by its ambivalence to jazz singing. Respected critics such as Benny Green, Joachim Berendt and Leon Ostransky and have all gone into print expressing great reservations about whether there can be such a thing as a 'jazz' singer[v], simply because the vocal performance implies adherence to melody and lyric in a way that an instrumental solo does not.

This dichotomy was rationalized within conveniently partisan parameters of the 'voice as instrument' notion, a wholly inadequate aesthetic that suggests the same criteria used to judge and instrumental performance should be applied to the jazz vocal. Such limited terms of reference—it is like comparing apples with oranges—not only implies a corollary value judgement that the so-called 'jazz vocal' did not deserve to be evaluated on its own merits, but denied the fact that it was underpinned by a quite specific aesthetic of its own.

But as Carter's career approached the 1980s, it was plain to those who would listen that she had become a walking definition of what 'jazz singing' meant.

Soaring beyond the 'voice as instrument' argument that has for so long polarized jazz critique, Alec Wilder's erudite summation of Cole Porter seemed to sum up her art perfectly, that "of bringing a certain theatrical elegance, as well as interest and sophistication, wit and musical complexity to the popular song form."[vi] It also appeared as a good a working definition of a jazz singer as any.

Although Carter first recorded under her own name in 1955, Social Call (+CBS Special Products [A] A36425), and intermittently thereafter, it was not until she signed with the Roulette label in the late 1960s that there was clear evidence her style had fully coalesced.

On albums such as Finally (+Roulette CDP 7953332) and Round Midnight (+Roulette CDP 7959992), both recorded live at Judson Hall in December 1969, or Now It's My Turn (Roulette SR-5005) from 1976, all the central elements of her style were present; a preference for excruciatingly slow tempi contrasted with a dramatic ability to handle the fastest tempi of jazz, a highly individual use of scat, her very personal use of melismata and her dramatic recasting of the song both rhythmically (often changing meter) and melodically.

The Audience With.. comes from 1979, after Roulette went the way of so many independents and was originally released on Carter's own Bet-Car label as a double-album set (Bet-Car [A] MK1003). Although recorded in concert, the sound quality is excellent.

With Carter, a live album brings with it the almost certain guarantee of a vintage performance; in front of an audience she gives her all, "An audience makes me think, makes me reach for things I'd never try in a recording studio," she asserted.[vii]

The centre-piece of the album is "Sounds," a tour-de-force of scat, shifting tempos and meters that lasts twenty-five minutes, twenty seconds. Carter holds center stage, there are no solos by her trio; she is out on the high-wire throughout. The piece opens with an piano ostinato which, literally, 'vamps 'til ready'. Carter enters with a little scat, but the theme actually begins as Carter sings "Sounds" and the song's construction emerges as:

(vamp 'til ready)+A(28 bars)+B(10 bars)+A+B+(open, watch cues)

After the theme statement, the form is very loosely constructed, responding to Carter's cues, where on her direction she introduces the 'B' section and the lyrics "Movin' on" signalling she is moving on to another change of mood. This high-risk strategy of spontaneously re-ordering a piece during performance had its roots in the playing of Ahmad Jamal who spliced interludes into songs and moved sections around as he heard them on the spot, bringing a revolutionary spontaneity to group playing.

Each new episode of "Sounds" reveals a different rhythmic climate, Carter singing in four over the rhythm section's three, the rhythm section powering ahead at a stunningly fast tempo while Carter holds back, Carter singing in half tempo, Carter swinging in straight ahead-four, but throughout, each 'free form' section deliberately contrasts the one before.

The cohesion Hicks, Lundy and Washington achieve during such mesmerizing tempo changes is one of the delights of the album. Carter's scat is entirely her own, marked by great melodic freedom, rather like scatter-brained arabesques, using an astonishing variety of phonyms (ie. vocal sounds) to maintain the forward momentum (swing) of her improvisations that on close study reveal melodic, rhythmic and timbral ideas of great cohesion and wit.

Carter owes much to the quirky, idiosyncratic tonal distortion of Sarah Vaughan, but embraces the whole panoply of phonyms from plosives through to frictives, nasals, and glides articulated in every possible way. Yet she is not about trying to jam the entire alphabet into each passing measure.

Carter's spirit is free-floating, associating snippets of melody with pitch-slides and bends (which, interestingly affect her rhythmic construction), weaving a wide range of vocal timbres that dramatically interacts with her trio. Everything she does remains firmly related to the basic pulse, even though she may have progressed to an entirely different metre to that of her rhythm section colleagues; indeed in one section of the song Carter, the piano, the bass and the drums are each playing in a different meter!

"I think I got it now" is performed at a profoundly slow pulse,[viii] one of Carter's specialties. While it is tempting for the lay listener to imagine the fastest of tempos provide one of the greatest challenges in jazz, it is in fact the reverse. Few musicians, however, allowed themselves such close public scrutiny at slow tempos as Carter does. Here, and on "Everything I have is yours," "Can't we talk it over," "Either it's love or it isn't," "Spring can really hang you up the most" and "So" the tempo moves by at such a glacier pace that any weakness in intonation, time and technique would be immediately and ruthlessly exposed.

Most musicians break for the sanctuary of double-time as quickly as they can; but Carter constantly courted disaster, moving through the emotional mood of a ballad as if in a dream, stalking the stage and abruptly freezing in some strange choreographed pose before moving on, the tempo always secure, her intonation inch perfect. It is these challenging tensions she imposed on herself that give her performances such a sense of danger and drama.

In contrast is her imaginative treatment of the "Trolley song" with its tempo changes and changes of meter, one of the more subtle ingredients that Carter the arranger—an art she learnt under saxophonist Bobby Plater's wing while a member of the Lionel Hampton band between 1948-51—imposes on her material.

After a hurtling introduction, she abruptly halves the tempo at the middle eight with a heavily ironic, and comic, "Clang, clang went the trolley" that bears no relation to the song as written; indeed, the whole number is sung ignoring the songwriter's intentions, completely customizing it to suit the idiosyncrasies of her style. Not for nothing was a 1992 release called It's Not About the Melody (+Verve 513 870). Indeed, "I could write a book," a medium tempo swinger, is preceded by the improvised section of scat before a highly refracted statement of the lyrics.

Carter's organization of her material is consistently impressive and demanded immaculately disciplined sidemen to cope with the challenging musical environment in which she operated. Although Art Blakey has been given much praise for providing a forum for promising young musicians to reach artistic maturity, Carter too deserves equal praise for the important role she has played in presenting pianists such as John Hicks, Onajae Alan Gumbs, Mulgrew Miller, Stephen Scott, Cyrus Chestnut, as well as host of bassists and drummers, not least Kenny Washington, Winard Harper and Lewis Nash.

"Deep night," a Rudy Vallee number (!) contrasts 3/4 and 4/4 and a sudden an unexpected double-tempo solo from Hicks, who also contributes fine solos on "So" and "Tight," which, as the latter implies, demands the tightest of playing from the trio as a unit.

Perhaps the finest example of group interplay between Carter and her trio is the stunning "My favourite things." As with "Movin' on," this is an integrated 'group' performance, albeit with Carter at the helm.

Carter and Hicks had a great affinity and mutual respect for each other's work, and the freedom Hicks finds within form lifts this into a performance that can be returned to and savored time and again, each fresh listening revealing a little more inner detail and nuance—Lundy's bassline, Washington's drumming, Hick's comping, his accompaniment that blossoms into a counter line to Carter's singing—who can say which of the two lines predominate?

This is a performance which soars above such limiting arguments about the validity of jazz singing or the 'criteria' by which it is judged. It is quite simply jazz of the highest order and that is enough. To say that it one of the finest jazz vocal performances on record is limiting, it is among the great contemporary albums of jazz.

i. Carter was not born in 1930, as all the record books say, but 1929. Interview with Betty Carter by SN, 2 October 1992. Ella Fitzgerald was not born in 1918, as all the record books say, but 1917, see Ella Fitzgerald by Stuart Nicholson (Scribners. New York, 1994).
ii. Interview with Carter, ibid.
iii. Ibid.
iv. Jazz Singing by Will Friedwald (Scribners. New York, 1990), page 402.
v. Green: "The truth of it is that there is no such thing as a jazz singer," Drums In My Ears (Davis-Poynter Ltd. London, 1973) page 133;
Berendt: "Jazz singing...is more effective the closer it approximates the instrumental use of the voice." (Paladin. London, 1983), page 374; Ostransky: "Jazz singing will eventually, and properly come under the classification of folk music studies," Understanding Jazz by Leon Ostransky (Prentice Hall. New Jersey, 1977), page 281.
vi. American Popular Song by Alec Wilder (Oxford University Press. New York, 1972), page 252.
vii. Interview with Carter by SN, 2 October 1992.
viii. l=circa 40.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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