Betty Carter's expansive grin breaks a little wider at the news. Over the weekend, she's been given a special award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors for her most recent album on Bet-Car, the label she started 10 years ago following 20 years of frustration with major labels. Word of the "Indie" award has reached her after an opening set at Blues Alley and Carter is totally surprised. "They never told me anything!"
Is the news traveled slowly to Betty Carter, the new about this great jazz vocalist has traveled even more slowly. In 30 years, Carter's put out less than a dozen albums; the latest was nominated for a Grammy this year (she lost to Ella Fitzgerald). The words most frequently attached to the 51-year-old singer are "independent" and "uncompromising," which may explain her career-long battle with obscurity.
"Why is it such a big thing for somebody to 'do it their way'?" Carter wonders aloud."The record companies didn't come running to me in the last 15 years -- hardly any jazz artists got a chance to record what they really wanted to, they had to conform. I couldn't conform, it was just not fun for me to be something else. I always got nervous when somebody tried to make me do something else."
Carter, who shapes a conversation with the same direct warmth and fluid phrasing she brings to a song, asserted her headiness as an 18-year-old newcomer to the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1948; she'd be regularly "fired at the drop of a hat" over her open preference for Dizzy Gillespie's band. "I was into that bebop thing, and when Dizzy's big band came on the scene, it was sharp , a new kind of music. But Dizzy didn't want a female in the band, though I'd sat in with him a number of times in Detroit." fCarter would always end up being rehired by Hamption's wife, who ran the band's affairs, but the vibist gave her a name which has stuck with her ever since -- Betty (Bebop) Carter.
More than 20 years later, fed up with record companies that tried to tame and compromise her hornlike phrasing and eclectic resolve, Carter started her own label, one of the first jazz artists to go that route.
Going the independent route also allows for the kind of patience that doesn't exist with the majors anymore. "In the old days, the companies would roll with musicians. If you had potential, they'd stick with you. Look at Miles Davis [on his early albums]; he sounds like a little boy! Today it's one shot that's it, and if it don't shoot, forget it. It's not fair to these young kids. That's the reason the independent label business can be successful. It's just none of us has a whole lot of money," she adds with a knowing laugh.
Carter is in a unique position, the last of the true jazz singers extending the tradition of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. The most exciting (and difficult) of the lot, she also represents a vanishing breed. Carter, who has little use for commercial "jazz" singers like Al Jarreau or Flora Purim, wistfully claims that "if I could find somebody in back of me, that could scare me a little." What does scare her are jazz's continuing problems in gaining a foothold in the academic structures of black universities.
"It bothers me.For the position jazz is in now, we need all the help we can get. Young musicians need to learn music and reach for becoming good musicians, instead of striking out for the big hit records. We need the time, we need the space to develop these kids . . . and there's no encouragement in the black schools".
Carter feels that a subtle bias still exists because "jazz was 'the devil's music.' My mother always thought it was a sin to get involved in coming to a club because there was alcohol and 'you're going straight to hell.' Well, most of the black schools were land-grant and church-based, while the music was formed in the street by drug addicts. And they had a point -- we had a lot of trouble; drugs and alcohol killed a lot of young musicians. But still, what came out of that atmosphere was a lot of good music, which should be taught and perpetuated in our black schools so that our kids will respect the real thing and forgive the person. No matter what Charlie Parker did, he left us something to live by, to deal with, to get together with. And he taught us something else -- 'don't become an addict or you'll die young.'"