It’s a warm October Saturday, the first year of the new Century. Small leaf storms are rising into the cloudless blue sky. The early autumn peace is broken by the news in the paper that Betty Carter has died in New York City at the age of 69. None of the accounts I read say just where and under what conditions she died. So many jazz musicians seem to have a way of breaking themselves like old 78 glass records, although to me, Betty Carter never seemed like one of the fragile ones.
Quite the opposite. She was another Original, and strong. Betty wasn’t just a jazz singer-she was in every sense of the term, a jazz musician. She took a tune apart and put it back together again the way the great jazz musicians do, the song merely a point of departure.
She didn’t just play around with the melody. She deconstructed it and reinvented it in all kinds of interesting new ways. Abstracted it and tossed it back at the other players who always had plenty to say about the directions things took next. But it was Betty at the helm and she led the group places they would not have gone without her. With Betty there was always that astoundingly subtle give-and-take that defines great ensemble playing, one player inhaling a breath and the other exhaling it.
The first time I saw Betty Carter in person was in the mid-sixties at The Apollo Theater in New York City on a wintry evening that contrasted sharply with the body heat in the auditorium that night. She was “the girl singer” with the Ray Charles Orchestra and not entirely free of her old “Betty Bebop” image yet. She and Ray sang duets and although Betty’s interpretation, even then, pushed the limits of the fairly stock arrangements, you could tell that she was being contained by too much structure. Too much attention to the tune. And you could tell from the way that she was being presented—in a sexy, low-backed sheath dress which became her visual trade mark for some years—that no one realized what a serious and creative musician she was. Another cute girl singer who could scat pretty good.
Don’t get me wrong, Betty and Ray Charles were great together. She recorded an album with him that included a pretty definitive version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” But you would have to have been a pretty astute listener to pick up on any of the daringly abstract musical traits that Betty Carter later brought to improvised music. They were there though, in the little purrs and slides she did to suggest sexuality. They were there in the subtle ways she found to move out from the structure of the big band, if only tentatively.
She was a butterfly in a cage with no room to open her wings. Not as beautiful sounding as Ella or Sarah, nor as melodically driven as Carmen or Billie, or Anita, perhaps.
It wasn’t until the mid-seventies that Betty came out with a trio album, aptly titled: Inside Betty Carter. With just a rhythm section, Betty dug down deep into her musical soul and produced an ensemble piece that in many ways still defines the genre. Free to explore all the nuances of every song in her own idiosyncratic way, her voice flowed like water in among the piano, bass and drums, giving and taking, everyone with equal access to the lead. At different moments, Betty would become an accompanist for the bass. Then the drummer would feed her an idea and she’d take it someplace new. She was creating a new kind of off-kilter symmetry that was pure Betty Carter.
As many times as I’ve heard “The Man I Love,” when Betty and her trio play it on her Feed the Fire CD, even the lyrics sound new. She bends them in strange, abstract ways that are all about nuance. She never even sings the melody straight once. Instead she purposely sings a phrase in a hard, awkward way, painting herself into a musical corner the way Bud and Monk always did. And then the trio has to respond creatively and “save” her, help her make it right. It’s an endlessly fascinating thing to observe. It’s dangerous playing, and all the greats did it. The only refuge, the only point of reference when you’re playing like this is the groove, the deeper the better. The place where the drummer gets to be free of just keeping the time, and the bassist strides along without having to think where his next note will be, and everybody just comes closer and closer until they’re all drawing one breath. Even in Betty’s slowest ballads, there was that deep, unshakable, warm nurturing groove. And that sweet tension and release.
Betty Carter will be greatly missed by musicians who love playing new and un-formulaic music. She’ll be studied by singers and musicians who thrive on setting new bounds and then leaping over them. She gave jazz her very own version of Freedom and for that, she is owed a great deal. I wonder how many other singers will dare to take the paths she did.
I can hear her laughing voice, her crying voice, her keening voice in this early autumn landscape, coloring the treetops, herding the clouds like random notes, putting them in order on the staff. The last most lovely rays of sun are disappearing behind the curve of the earth and it’s just Betty and the deep woody voice of the bass. An occasional, perfectly placed “ping” on the cymbal crown. The only possible piano note in exactly the right spot. Right where she wanted it and all she had to do was think it.