Betty Carter: Still taking risks

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Nov. 14, 1997) -- While it has perhaps been a long time in coming, the world has generally caught up with Betty Carter, an artist before her time if there ever was one. But now, with multiple Grammy nominations in her pocket, with props from the White House -- President Clinton awarded her one of 11 National Medals of Art last month -- and with critical recognition ranging the gamut from "the most original jazz singer alive" to "the best jazz singer in the world," how does Carter feel about the view from her vantage point at the pinnacle of jazz?

Not good, as it turns out. While Carter, 67, acknowledges that she is enjoying the fruits of her labors after 50 years on the road, it is only through her sheer persistence, she thinks, that she is finally getting her due.

"Jazz is not a nice word today," said Carter -- who performs with her trio tonight in Chapin Hall at Williams College at 8 -- in a recent phone interview from her home in Brooklyn.

"Because jazz doesn't make money quickly, a lot of people in power are not encouraging young people to really use the word `jazz,'" said Carter, who was awarded an honorary degree at Williams last June.

"For a person who's been out here as long as I have, they're pretty much sick of me because I just won't go away," said the always outspoken Carter. "I'm not going away, see, that's what probably bothers a lot of people.

"There's a lot of young singers who are coming up, and [record executives] hope that they will replace the idea of jazz being what I have in mind with what THEY have in mind. But until I go away, that's not going to happen, because as long as I'm around, I may be a thorn in some of the business peoples' sides who want to interpret the music another way for them to make money more quickly.

"They discourage these young girls, young singers, from dealing with this music called jazz -- don't improvise, sing it straight, or sing it like somebody else has done it, or be like someone else. We have a lot of African-American singers who sing the gospel, who come directly out of a church, and they have these big, wonderful voices, and they know how to program these young ladies, and they tell them they're going to make a whole lot of money if they sing this way instead of that way.

"In fact, the young singers, most of them don't even know what my singing is like. They don't have any idea what jazz is. Until they maybe hear me one day and then they're surprised. But it's too late for them then, they can't just change automatically and say I'm going to try to be like that."

What those singers do discover upon first hearing Betty Carter is a sound that is utterly unique. For more than perhaps any vocalist in jazz history, Carter uses her voice as a musical instrument, period. And in her case, the musician is as innovative and groundbreaking an improviser and performer as a Charlie Parker or a Dizzy Gillespie, to name just two of the bebop legends whom Carter sat in with when she first got her start in Detroit nightclubs in the 1940s.

Carter says that she came upon her unusual style naturally, as a result of trying to attract the interest of musicians who would want to play with her. "When we came up, we knew that we had to become a musician or a better singer or a better horn player," she said. "And that's what we worked toward. We wanted musicians to like what we were doing as singers, so that they would want to play with us and accompany us and made us feel like we were contributing something."

Carter says this is in stark contrast to today, when the emphasis is on "being like somebody else and about crazily making money."

Carter credits those earlier bandleaders, especially Lionel Hampton, for the work and dedication they showed to younger musicians. It is a role that was not lost on her. Indeed, Carter has come to be known as much for her role as a teacher and bandleader as for her vocal artistry. Her exacting work as a bandleader and her Brooklyn-based Jazz Ahead workshops earned her the moniker "jazz's best university" in the New York Times. Alumni of "Betty Carter U," as she has also been called, include such well-known young lions as Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson.

As much as it is a tribute to her mentors, Carter says her work as a teacher is not entirely selfless. "There's no way that I can say that I haven't learned a lot from these young players, because they're raw and they come up with things that I would never think about doing," she said. "It has a different feel, a different attitude. So having these young people around me has been an asset."

Carter has been an inconoclast from day one, and more than just artistically. In her steadfast manner and through her fierce independence, she anticipated the sort of feminist, do-it-yourself ethos personified by such contemporary rockers as Ani DiFranco.

While early in her career she enjoyed a bona-fide pop hit in a duet with Ray Charles on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Carter never sold herself out. Nearly a quarter-century before DiFranco upended the music industry by releasing her top-selling albums under her own imprint, Carter took a similar tack, when in 1969 she founded her own Bet-Car label.

While the result may have cost her somewhat in terms of the marketing support and exposure typically provided by major-label record companies, the net gain was, much like with DiFranco today, in her ability to resist the pressures of the corporate marketplace, and answer only to herself.

Her stubborn streak, she says, feeds her art to this day, even for the last decade while she has been recording for the Verve label. "A lot of singers when they get older and can't reach the note anymore, they drop the key a couple steps as their voice gets lower and lower, but I try not to do that," said Carter.

"I refuse to change keys. What I do now is I improvise all around the piece of material just to accomodate the song, and whenever I can touch the melody I touch it, and when I can't touch it, it's somewhere else. That's what I do. I'm giving out the secret, because if singers want to maintain the brightness of their sound, that's what they have to do.

"I'm educating myself as I go along and learning more about myself and then putting my voice to the test on top of that, challenging it, making sure that it stays on top and does not drop. So I'm challenging the whole picture and taking what I call a risk."

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Nov. 14, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]

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