Betty Carter's jazz legacy -- We look at the career success of the Grammy winning female vocalist

By Larry Blumenfeld
Updated October 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Legacy: Betty Carter

Betty Bebop — that’s what they called Betty Carter when she began singing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton in late-1940s Detroit. But by the time she died of pancreatic cancer, on Sept. 26, 1998, at age 69, Carter had long transcended that nickname. One of jazz’s great ladies of song, she was perhaps its most daring and unclassifiable.

In Hampton’s band, Carter wanted to sing songs; Hamp wanted her to scat. After leaving the band, over time she developed a style — built on bebop, and made personal and progressive through ever-changing manipulations of phrasing, diction, and pitch — that blurred such distinctions. Carter moved from convention to experimentation within even a phrase. She erased the invisible wall between band and singer, so instrumental-sounding was her voice. And she invested each lyric with irony or power, so supple was her style.

Notable among her many studio recordings was 1961’s Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which contains a classic rendition of ”Baby It’s Cold Outside,” but Carter was best doing her own thing live, as on The Audience With Betty Carter (1979). Although she struggled professionally in the ’60s and ’70s, the ’80s brought overdue recognition, including a 1988 Best Female Jazz Vocal Grammy for Look What I Got! Last year, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.

Carter was also one of jazz’s leading mentors, her bandstand serving as a finishing school for rising stars such as pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson. With one swoop of her voice, she set these players in motion; with one finger snap, she brought them into line. What they appreciated is what we loved: musical discipline mixed with the sheer joy of creation, all in the service of a song.

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