Obituary: Betty Carter

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"I DON'T even sing a song if I don't enjoy it. I don't sing a song just to be singing a song. Every song I sing I like."

Betty Carter was one of those musicians recognised by those inside the music as giants of jazz, but who yet managed to slip by without the great listening public being aware of them or troubled by their work. Lucky Thompson and Oscar Pettiford are two other examples of the genre.

The reason? The title of one of Carter's albums, It's Not About The Melody (1992), provides the answer. Put bluntly, the great listening public requires to have the tune laid recognisably on its ears before it can appreciate having that tune reshaped. Carter often dispensed with such formality and moved directly to her inventions on the melody without an unembellished theme statement.

Undoubtedly one of the most important jazz singers of the age, Carter was also a great teacher of musicians with a dominant belief in the spirit of jazz rather than its definition. "Don't define it," she said. "It's not technical. It's a feeling you receive from a performer."

Most vocalists sing the melody with support from a backing group, perhaps a trio or a big band, but not Carter who, like Billie Holiday, sang from within whatever group she was working with, rather than just using it as a platform.

"I think it used to bother musicians that I didn't sing the melody. But I think you should do a tune the way you feel. Because it's been done straight for the last 50 years. And there's 10,000 singers out there who will sing it straight, who can't improvise, who don't even know how."

More so than Holiday, she led the musicians to play in the way that she wanted and became a creative soloist rather than a bland dispenser of lyrics. She not only chose the musicians in her various trios with the utmost care, but also trained them in their playing over a period of years. The training continued on stage in musical duet and conversation with the individual players:

In order to sing jazz, you have to workat it. You should know keyboard theory. And harmonic training certainly helps. But I suppose that most jazz singers are naturals. You have to be around jazz musicians.

They know music and they cannot deny my music. They know damn well that ain't no cheap stuff up there and I've worked on it. And I respected them too, you know.

It was usual for her to let her trio play for half an hour before she appeared, and this in itself gave a valuable platform to her proteges. As a result her young accompanists often went on to make names for themselves. Her graduates included the pianists John Hicks and Mulgrew Miller, bassists Buster Williams and Dave Holland, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Lewis Nash.

This devotion on Carter's part is unique, and it is reflected in the intensity of her work. Which is not to imply that she was not a joyous singer. The cliche is to say that someone sings like an instrumentalist plays. This is resoundingly true in Carter's case and often when she led her band in an improvisation she could take off with all the swing of Lester Young or the power of Dizzy Gillespie. The pianist Norman Simmons, her accompanist for more than 10 years, remembered a jam session at the Half Note in New York. "She sounded as far into it as any horn I'd heard play and she was singing fantastic lines and intervals. Miles Davis got turned on and borrowed Bobby Hackett's trumpet to get up there and join her. It was a really beautiful session."

Carter could also improvise and articulate at breakneck tempos. Best seen in person, she had an unusually mobile face and was very much a visual performer, sometimes almost surreal. She communicated powerfully with her audience, moving constantly about the stage and never still and languid at the microphone like so many torch singers. She also composed, and most of her appearances would include a couple of her numbers.

Unlike other singers, so often influenced by Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Armstrong or Sinatra, Carter was a determined original. "There were never two Dinah Washingtons, or two Ellas or two Sarah Vaughans," she said. "I just found out what I could do by trial and error and as I developed I found my style as I went. We all strived to be our own person. That was my whole background, my whole foundation."

Carter grew up in Detroit and as a teenager sang with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and other visitors to the city. In 1948 she left Detroit to tour with Lionel Hampton as his band singer, where she used the name Lorraine Carter. Hampton, the foremost showman in jazz, to her annoyance featured only Carter's acrobatic scat vocals and ruled out her ballad singing entirely.

She thought Hampton's music vacuous and often told him so to his face with the result that he fired her on several occasions. Each time Hampton's wife Gladys, who had both a tight grip and a deep insight into the Hampton purse, would rehire her. Hampton called her "Betty Bebop" on stage and this soon evolved into "Betty Bebop Carter" and finally to "Betty Carter".

"Hamp made that nickname predominant because of my ability to scat," she said. "I no longer want to be identified with this. Ella's not called Ella `Bebop' Fitzgerald, is she?"

Carter left Hampton in 1951 and went to New York City to try to make her career as a solo singer. She worked on and off for the next two decades, appearing regularly at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and in other theatres, clubs and at festivals. Because of her individuality she did few recordings and over a ten-year period made only five albums under her own name.

Her career was boosted when she joined Ray Charles's touring show from 1960 to 1963. "It was the high point of my life as a jazz performer, because I had the chance to work to masses of people, doing what I wanted to do." With Charles she recorded an album of duets in 1960 and "Baby, It's Cold Outside", taken from the album as a single, became a hit.

She began to tour abroad, visiting Japan with Sonny Rollins in 1963. She came to London in 1964 in a move typical of the Ronnie Scott Club's policy in giving support to worthy artists even if they were unknown over here. The stir she caused amongst Scott's audiences and good reports in the press led to her establishment with British audiences. For a brief period during the middle Sixties in New York she sang with musicians from all over the jazz spectrum, including John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra.

Carter began to tour with her own trio in 1969, a significant move, and two years later, distraught at the lack of recording opportunities, established her own label, Bet-Car Records. The albums she made for it were taken over and reissued by Verve when she signed a contract with the label in 1988. Her album of that year, Look What I've Got, won her a Grammy award as the vocalist of the year.

In 1975 she appeared in the New York musical Don't Call Me Man, and this resulted in another clutch of club engagements.

She founded "Jazz Ahead" in 1993. This is a music programme that brings about 20 young musicians to New York for study each spring. The visit is capped by a week-end of concerts given by the visitors. Last year President Clinton presented her with the National Medal Of Arts award.

Although she continued the surreal into her remarkable and unique way of dressing Betty Carter had no pretense to glamour and remained a specialised singer. Because of this she never earned the abundant money that more conventional artists did. It didn't bother her too much.

"I never wanted anything but to sing jazz."

Lillie Mae Jones (Betty Carter), jazz singer: born Flint, Michigan 16 May 1929; married 1960 James Redding (two sons); died New York 26 September 1998.