Betty Carter :: Biography

Betty Carter was born Lillie Mae Jones in Detroit, Michigan on May 16, 1930. She was raised in a strict baptist household in a city with a rich jazz community. She began signing in her high school choir and was later exposed to bebop, which she immediately fell in love with. While still in her teens, she began singing with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. Carter worked with Hampton for two-and-a-half years. He gave her the nickname "Betty Bebop", of which she retained the "Betty". Their relationship was always rocky and she was fired numerous times, but with the help of Hampton's wife, Gladys, they always managed to get back together.

"Anytime that Hamp and I got into it, [Gladys] was always backing me up and making sure that I didn't leave the band too early. She wanted me to wait and get some experience and then leave the band," recalled Carter.

After leaving Hampton's band in the early '50s, Carter headed to New York where she was determined to make a name for herself. "It was very important in those days for a musician or a singer to become an individual," stated Carter. "You had to be yourself if you were going to succeed." And that's what Carter did. She not only created a name for herself, but also created her own musical identity through her singing, composing and arrranging.

During the early '60s, Carter married, had two sons and continued her career. In 1961 she was asked to record with singer Ray Charles. Their version of Georgia On My Mind took the country by storm and made Charles a household name. However, as the '60s progressed, Carter struggled with managers and record companies and was labeled as "troublesome". So in 1969, she started her own record label called Bet-Car Productions and by 1970 released her first album. This was a rare step for a female jazz musician in that time and something she is admired for today.

Betty Carter also began hiring and mentoring young musicians. She offered on-the-job training to some of the best and brightest young musicians. These included drummers Clarence Penn and Lewis Nash, pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Benny Green, and bassists Chris Thomas, Michael Bowie and Curtis Lundy.

During the '80s, Carter's Grammy Award-winning album Look What I Got became the first independently produced jazz album to receive a Grammy. She collaborated with vocalist Carmen McRae and pianist Geri Allen who she also managed for a few years in the early '90s. She also remained an influential mentor and teacher.

Betty passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer on September 16, 1998. She was sixty-nine years of age. She was best known to fans for her signature singing style -- daring improvisations and unusual approaches to songs that included scat-singing around every tune and bouncing syncopations against every off beat but the expected one. Her music included tonal distortions, a very wide range of tempos, and many unexpected changes of direction. Her music was unique and she will be long remembered for her contributions to jazz.

The Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program

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