Betty Carter (1930-1998)
A virtuosic, world-renowned female jazz singer took the world by storm between the 1980s to 1990s. Her unique style of singing, involving improvised lines, scatt phrasing, and bebop, mixed with her daring and unpredictable change in tempos, meters, and melodies grabbed the world by storm and swung it around the jazz club. She infused new life into jazz music. She inflated it with love, light, abstract ideas, changing melodies, virtuosic rhythms, and a singing style that sounds like an improvising saxophone. Her name was Lillie Mae Jones. Her friends in Brooklyn called her Betty, her nickname was ‘Betty Bebop.’ But to most of the world, she was the legendary jazz artist Betty Carter. And she lived and breathed music.
Betty Carter was born on May 16th, 1930 in Flint, Michigan and raised in a strict Baptist household. She grew up in and among a growing jazz community and studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music until she was 15, then turned to singing. Her parents didn't support her musical journey, so Betty would sneak out at night to audition for amateur shows. She soon won first place. Her win solidified her want to be a musician and at 16 in 1946, she started to sing in jazz clubs, bars, and theaters under the stage name Lorene Carter. Because she was underage, Betty forged a birth certificate so she’d be allowed into the age-restricted spaces to perform.
Betty was exposed to bebop in her teenage years and was immediately hooked. Bebop is a style of jazz music that emerged in the 1940s heavily based on improvising using a chromatic scale instead of a diatonic scale, and is categorized by its complex rhythms and harmonies. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker were two artists to pioneer bebop and Betty had the fantastic opportunity to sing with both of them when she was a teenager.
Betty’s ‘big break’ came when she joined drummer Lionel Hampton’s big band in 1948. Through this gig, Betty perfected her vocal improvisation and honed her unique vocal style, which was described as having a “saxophone-improv feel.” It is said Hampton or his wife Gladys coined the name ‘Betty Bebop’ for her.
Betty left Hampton’s band around 1951 and traveled to New York. Through the 1950’s she sang, composed, and arranged jazz music, in doing so creating a unique musical identity for herself. As she said in an interview with NPR, “It was very important in those days for a musician or a singer to become an individual… you had to be yourself if you were going to succeed.” (NPR) However, her work was sporadic, as her style was ‘more jazz than cabaret’ and because she tried to distance herself from the abusive working conditions that came with recording jazz music.
In 1961 Betty worked with artist Ray Charles. They produced an album with their own rendition of “Baby It's Cold Outside.” The song was a hit and positively impacted Betty’s career and she worked with Atco Records and Roulette Records and also traveled to Japan, London, and France with other artists.
In the 1960s Betty also married James Redding and had two children, Myles and Kagle Redding but eventually divorced her husband.
Over time, Betty became increasingly frustrated with the record labels she recorded for and the record labels, in turn, labeled her as troublesome. Betty wanted to pull away from bending to the will of the recording industry and the disparities the companies showed, so in 1969 she started her own record label called Bet-Car Productions and released her music through there. Her first album came out in 1971.
Creating her own record label was the ultimate power move for a Black female artist at the time.
Along with her record label, Betty formed a trio, that served a dual purpose. On one hand, the trio served as a way for Betty to play her own music and compositions during the 1970s and 1980s, and on the other hand, she had the desire to shape and mold the next generation of jazz musicians, and so started hiring promising up-and-coming jazz musicians to play in her trio and trained them in the process. Countless jazz musicians came through Betty’s trio before creating their own successful bands throughout the ’80s including Dave Holland, Benny Green, Cyrus Chestnut, and David Bowie. In an interview with the New York Times, Betty said
"The survival of jazz culture takes priority… The survival of this culture depends on people playing it and living the life. The young guys playing it in 20 years will be taking the music somewhere else. There was a period where, in jazz, the music sent people away. But it's now back to making people feel better, putting happy smiles on their faces. When I was coming up, that's what jazz was about. It wasn't about money. It was how happy you could make people.” (Watrous)
In line with this mindset, one of Betty’s ‘proudest achievements’ was the development of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program established in 1993 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Betty was involved with Jazz Ahead until her death.
General online source
Encyclopædia Britannica, 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Lionel-Hampton.
Wong, Pamela . “Fort Greene Honors Jazz Legend Betty Carter.” Bklyner, 20 Sept. 2019, bklyner.com/fort-greene-honors-jazz-legend-betty-carter/. Accessed 29 July 2023.
NPR. “Betty Carter: Fiercely Individual.” NPR, NPR, 14 Aug. 2008,
www.npr.org/2008/08/14/93572181/betty-carter-fiercely-individual. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.
Bauer, William R. Open the Door : The Life and Music of Betty Carter. Ann Arbor, University Of Michigan Press, 2003.
“Betty Carter.” Www.arts.gov, www.arts.gov/honors/jazz/betty-carter.
“Betty Carter.” KUVO, 25 Mar. 2017, www.kuvo.org/betty-carter/. Accessed 29 July 2023.
“Betty Carter | Kennedy Center.” The Kennedy Center, www.kennedy-center.org/artists/c/ca-cn/betty-carter/#:~:text=Betty%20Carter%20was%20born%20Lillie. Accessed 29 July 2023.
“Betty Carter Albums and Discography.” AllMusic, www.allmusic.com/artist/betty-carter-mn0000048908/discography. Accessed 29 July 2023.
Watrous, Peter. “Betty Carter, Innovative Jazz Vocalist, Is Dead at 69.” The New York Times, 28 Sept. 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/09/28/arts/betty-carter-innovative-jazz-vocalist-is-dead-at-69.html. Accessed 29 July 2023.
“Pop/Jazz; a World Written, and Rewritten, by Betty Carter.” The New York Times, 28 Aug. 1992, www.nytimes.com/1992/08/28/arts/pop-jazz-a-world-written-and-rewritten-by-betty-carter.html. Accessed 29 July 2023.