100 Jazz Profiles
1929 - 1998
Singer. To many critics and fans, Betty Carter was the finest jazz singer of the late 20th century. She was a relentless experimenter, always thinking of ways to alter the melodic line, the pitch or harmonic structure of a song, and equally adept at her interpretation of lyrics.
Sometimes the effects were startling - she could make old standards sound unrecognisable - but as her career progressed it was obvious that she was applying the same daring level of experimentation of Cecil Taylor of Ornette Coleman to the art of vocal jazz. The first major jazz musician to appreciate her talents was Lionel Hampton, with whom she toured in the late 1940s, and who coined her stage name (she was born Lillie Mae Jones).
She raised a family in the 1950s and 1960s , but in between had moments of commercial success, including discs with Ray Charles, but her career really took off in the 1970s when she began touring with her own trio and recording for her own Bet-Car label. She founded the label in order to be able to record her uncompromising interpretations without the pressure of working for a commercial label.
For almost three decades she became regarded as one of jazz's leading talent-spotters, employing a host of fine accompanists including Marc Cary, Cyrus Chestnut, Benny Green, and Peter Martin. All these musicians benefited from her energetic exploration of new sounds, and her prolific flow of ideas. Not every Betty Carter performance was a success, but most could be guaranteed to be challenging and thought-provoking at a level managed by very few other singers in the entire history of jazz.
Will Friedwald: Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond (London, Quartet) 1991
Feed The Fire (Verve 523 600-2) [CD of a BBC Radio 3 concert]
Suggested track: Lover Man
The unofficial Betty Carter homepage
With biographical and discographical details
on radio 3
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