The VocalMusician Interview "from the Vault"
Foreword by Dawn! E. Robinson
My introduction to legendary jazz vocalist BETTY CARTER was not a pretty one. In the Summer of 1984, I was singing with the Lettumplay Jazz Ensemble and we opened for BETTY CARTER at Ft. Dupont Park in Washington, DC. Ms. Carter did not seem very approachable. But when we were introduced, she shook my hand, said that she had heard me a little at sound check and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was in school at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester VA and sang with the big band. She wasn't impressed. "Oh, a dance band," she said. I replied (defensively, perhaps) that we didn't play dances, we played concerts. She said, "It's still a dance band" and walked away. That was that.
Earlier that year, BETTY CARTER granted an interview to Michon Boston who, at the time, was a Senior at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH with her own show on the campus radio station, WOBC. Below is a transcript of that interview as it aired on WOBC-radio. Although Ms. Carter was a jazz singer, she was very much aware of what was happening in other areas of the music industry at the time of this interview and she had very strong opinions about it. As you read, keep in mind that, in 1984, Michael Jackson was at the height of his success with the Thriller album; MTV was a brand new medium but Michael Jackson was one of the few black artists on their play list; jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock had recently been added to the MTV line-up with his Top-40 hit "Rock It" - much to the chagrin of older jazz artists like Ms. Carter; and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis had broken big on the classical and jazz scene. Ms. Carter had much to say about these artists, about racism in the music industry and what it takes to survive the industry in general. Also, most of the jazz masters Ms. Carter mentioned in this 1984 interview were still alive, still recording and still playing to packed houses all over the world. BETTY CARTER started her own record label (BetCar) in 1969 and produced most of her recordings. Like SAM COOKE, who started his own label (SAR) ten years earlier, Ms. Carter was at the forefront of an independent movement that I think is just beginning to revolutionize the music industry. Enjoy...DeRob!
BETTY CARTER Interview by Michon Boston
[Music: BETTY CARTER singing "I Can't Help It"]
[Voiceover by Michon Boston:] BETTY CARTER has held the title as "High Priestess of Bebop" for 35 years. Born in Flint, Michigan in 1930, she began her singing career after winning an amateur singing contest at Detroit's Paradise Theatre. Her "big break" came in 1948 when jazz vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton, invited her to join his band. BETTY CARTER has performed with famous artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Jazz is not only a passion from rehearsal to performance for BETTY CARTER. She calls it "the business". Since 1969, she has recorded her music on her own record label, Bet-Car. This interview was recorded on March 26, 1984 in her home-studio-office on St. Felix Street in Brooklyn, New York. I asked Ms. Carter about her early career and how she acquired the nickname, "Betty Bebop".
BC: Early, when I first started in the business years ago - I started with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey and all those guys about the late 40s - I was exposed to that Bebop music. And my exposure... turned me on to it. So, I was able to improvise a little bit at a young age. And I got with Lionel Hampton - who really isn't a Bebop band, but - I started out with his band in 1948 and, because I could improvise - or scat - whatever you wanna call it, I was nicknamed, "Betty Bebop" by Lionel Hampton. And I stayed with his band about two and a half years and couldn't get rid of it until I left the band.
I left the band in '51. I started a campaign of trying to get rid of the "Bebop" and just plainly use Betty Carter and it's been slowly getting out of the way. But still a few people remember it and alot of young kids like you don't know... that I don't like it too much. But they still can refer to it - they don't have a feeling about it like I have about it, most of the young kids today. So... I just take it now and don't get too angry when people call me "Betty Bebop". I used to get very angry. Or upset. Because it had a - well it always aligned you with certain musicians who had drug habits and things like that; who hurt themselves physically. You know. And I didn't wanna be in that category. But I couldn't get rid of the word 'Bebop', you see? I wasn't a junkie or anything like that, you know. I just enjoyed the music. And that's the reason why I wanted to get rid of the word 'Bebop' because it meant that you were unreliable, irresponsible, you see. And that wasn't the case in my case.
MB: Did you find it hard to keep your own pace within that kind of grouping of jazz musicians; some who were irresponsible?
BC: Well, the irresponsible people paid for it, you know. And since I wasn't in that category of irresponsibility, I managed... to be responsible and club owners knew that. And I worked. Otherwise I - I didn't get cheated, you know, like alot of people did. Because they were junkies, they were apt to be used. Because they needed the money for their habit more than anything else, you see. So, the club owner or whoever was booking them would say, 'Well they were all on drugs, so we'll pay them anything we want.' You know. And the desperation thing, when you're a user, means that you'll take that little bit of money or something like that. But I never fell into that - that kind of... atmosphere.
MB: Where did you tour those first few years?
MB: Did you go on tour or just play in clubs?
BC: Oh, we did alot of one-nighters and club dates all over the place. There were alot of places to play in those days, you see. In the 50s, there were alot of places to work. You could just - you didn't have to become a hit record star to work. You - all you had to do was... to work on your craft, become a good performer, make sure the people liked you when they come to see you and that was all that was necessary. If you did that, you could get a job. And the record business wasn't as big as it is today. They didn't think the way they think today, like about only money - just make me some money or that's it. All you had - you really just had to become a good performer.
MB: You say in the 50s, there was more work and then in the 60s, wasn't there a lack of jobs for jazz musicians or that jazz sort of had a standstill-
BC: No, no, I don't think so. What happened really in the 60s was not that there was a lack of work. There was just a turn-around in the business. In '64, if you remember, Motown and The Beatles came into existence, you see. And The Beatles, when they came into the business, that meant that now the - most of the white audience could now enjoy black music without hiding. All before that, they used to enjoy black music, but they wouldn't admit it to anybody, you see. They would only admit it to Elvis Presley and - and uh, Bill Haley - these were the rock 'n rollers of that time. These were the people that white people looked up to. Elvis Presley did not admit that he was influenced or inspired by any black artists, you know? But The Beatles did! When they came on the scene, they said they were inspired by Chuck Berry and Little Richard and people of color, you see? So, therefore, it released alot of white people who really wanted to get involved with black music but just... couldn't because of the racism, you see?
Then Motown came along in Detroit which developed all of the young blacks that we have today that are busy like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and all that stuff. So, it became a big money-making deal. Jazz was never the kind of art-form that made alot of money for the jazz artists and the record companies. Not instant money; not on the scale of a commercial record, you see? But it was respected enough by recording companies that they recorded it and they recorded the artists.
But in the mid-60s, the whole scene was changing. Don't forget we were fighting for our rights at that time; civil rights was coming into view; we had Martin Luther King on one end and we had the southern people down there fighting against it. So, it was a whole turmoil at that time; at that period.
So, it wasn't that jazz didn't have a place to work, because I worked, you see. Alot of us worked - Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, nobody quit! There were alot of defections into the money bracket. But nobody quit the music of jazz, you see. But there were alot of musicians; jazz musicians who decided, 'Well I'm not gonna make any money in jazz so I'll go commercial.' And they started making money becoming commercial artists, you see. So, that's what happened. Big money came into play.
MB: Do you think that jazz is making more big money now with people like Wynton Marsalis coming into the limelight with commercial jazz?
BC: Wynton Marsalis is not a commercial jazz artist?
MB: Well, more people recognize him -
BC: Well, he's gotten alot of promotion from Columbia but he's still not a commercial jazz artist. He's still not making the kind of money who, say - say uh - let me see - to use an example of a person who's gone commercial - Herbie Hancock, who's gone commercial. Or uh, Donald Byrd who probably can't even find a job today, you know, who went commercial a long time ago. Uh... Miles Davis, who's gone commercial in a sense.
But he [Wynton] hasn't been able to sell the kind of records still that all the commercial artists sell. We just don't! Jazz is just not that kind of music. I mean, for me, I think it's wonderful!!! I think that's what keeps it creative; I think it - keeps it unique, 'cause everybody can't become commercial, you know. And I'm one of them who couldn't become commercial. And there's alot of 'em out there that couldn't become commercial. You know, Sonny Rollins - he tried to become commercial. It just couldn't happen for him. There's McCoy Tyner who recently tried to become commercial by recording with uh... the singer - you know - and the record company tried to make him a commercial artist. It just wouldn't happen.
The younger people - it's for you! It really is for the younger people. If you've been out here for 30 years and all of a sudden, you're gonna delete your music, take two steps backwards, you know, to not use all the musicianship that you know to become commercial, somehow or another, you're going to fall flat on your face - and not really succeed, you know.
Herbie Hancock, to me, has done more harm in the fact that he has become 1984's "Uncle Tom", I think. And the reason why I say that is because - and he's making money - and that's what he wants to do. But it's statements that he makes. Like his desire to get on MTV makes him make statements like, uh... his desire to get on MTV makes him make statements like, 'I used robots because it enhanced my chances of getting on MTV.' In other words, if you don't use any black artists, you'll get on MTV you see? But here we come along with a Michael Jackson who just stormed all the way through that market who said, 'Listen I'm gonna do the best performance I can do and you all are gonna have to buy it because it's gonna be good.' you see? Well, Herbie - Herbie Hancock's known that - he's forty-somethin' years old; he's 43-years-old, in fact. So, he's really trying to become the best commercial artist out there. Deleted his music; he couldn't care less about jazz; don't wanna even talk about it; or don't wanna encourage it. He just wants to encourage his thing. But Michael's never been a jazz artist. See? So he hasn't got that influence, that flavor down there. He couldn't influence a jazz artist. But Herbie Hancock has more of an impact on alot of jazz artists because of his background, you see. And, therefore, alot of people who are young - young people who wanna play jazz look at a Herbie Hancock and maybe then change, you see. They won't be influenced by a Michael Jackson. They'll be more influenced by a Herbie Hancock. Then again I say he is, to me, a detriment to black people; music people by saying some of the things he says. Not that he's not making money. Because he'll look at me and everybody else and say, 'Look how much money I'm going to the bank with.' you know. Stuff like that, you know.
But still, we as black people... have got to realize that we have a culture to save. And if we don't do it, nobody's gonna save it. I don't care how many white people imitate us or make all the money off of us. If we, as black people, don't get behind it and save it, it still won't be saved; it will still get away from us. And there will be white people playing it all over the place, but still the creativity, the growth won't happen, you know, because we've abandoned it, because it won't make the kind of money that some people wanna make. You see?
And even in the commercial world - uh... if it don't be for Motown, we wouldn't have any black artists. Motown was literally the savior. Because of The Beatles - when The Beatles came into existence, white people just came from everywhere that wanted to sing, you see. So, record companies said, 'Well we don't even need to record black people, we can just record white people and make all the money.' You see? But then Motown came along, you see, and saved - and because of Motown, we've got Stevie Wonder. You know, we got Michael Jackson and everybody else that's out there in the commercial world, you see. If it don't be for Motown, we won't have it. And because of the talent of, say, of Michael Jackson and the fact that he was able to sustain his self for 20 years, he was able to outshine them all at this point in life. When they took all the stuff that we did and made money off of it, right now Michael Jackson is in the driver's seat. And black music is in the driver's seat.
But still we have certain people who just don't believe it. I mean, today - in today's age, to have a Herbie Hancock to say what he said is just... it's embarrassing, to me. I mean, like I told you, he's probably saying, [chuckle] 'Who in the hell is Betty Carter? She's not making as much money as I'm making.' You know.
MB: Do you think it would be more advantageous for black artists to have their own labels?
BC: Right now, for jazz, it's advantageous for any jazz artist to have their own label because major record labels are not recording jazz artists.
Let me see. Let me tell you something. If... if Wynton Marsalis don't be connected with Julliard, he don't get Columbia. The connection with Julliard is... is prestigious. You see? Here's a Julliard student who is playing jazz with Art Blakey. That's really good, you see. So that's the reason why he's getting all the attention he's getting. Now. Because there are alot of trumpet players out there now who are good trumpet players who haven't got a recording contract with anybody. And it's the connection with Julliard that really stimulates Columbia to go all out and because he had the Julliard - he had a conductor or somebody there back him or whatever, you know. Not that he's not talented - but it was more advantageous for him to be connected with Julliard; something white, you understand? Julliard - than to just be like the trumpet player that Art Blakey has with him now, Terrence [Blanchard]. Terrence is very very good, but he won't get a major recording deal with Columbia. You see? And Terrence is really good and he has no connection with Julliard at all. You see. But that's the reason for that - that's the reason that you're getting the Wynton Marsalis push like you're getting. Not that, like I said - 'cause he's a fine gentleman - a fine man who says what he wants to say, and don't pull no punches and I don't blame him. But I think he also would admit that if he don't be connected with Julliard and Art Blakey at the same time, there's no record date for him if he just came from Memphis and straight ahead. Just like, say, Terrence, and alot of other trumpet players who play well, but who won't get that chance to record with a major company.
It's an on-the-job-training type of thing. You can't learn it in school. You can teach all the chords and everything but concept is something you can't teach. That's the reason why its so, it's so... individual, you know. There's only one of a kind. Especially in black jazz. There's only one of a kind. There's only one Ella, one Sarah, one me, one Art, one Dizzy, one Miles, one of everything - there's no two. I mean, if you think about it, there's no two Dukes, no two Count Basies, no two of anything - most of the people who are making money are individuals. They have their own style, their own sound, their own way of doing this music.
Now, the classical training, technically, can teach you how to maybe go after notes and stuff like that. But when it comes down to performing as a jazz performer, it's not just about improvising, you've got to have a feeling for it. You've got to be able to come up with something very spontaneous. You know? And I think that once you're over trained - I think that it might get in the way. Over-trained in the way. There are alot of piano players who are technically wonderful but you can hear that they're over-trained. You can hear it, you know. And so - because they don't - they don't make to many boo-boos [Laughs]; you don't - you don't feel too comfortable with 'em because you know that they're gonna get everything right. And in jazz, we like to... to... stumble a little bit, to try to make it and feel it, you know. It's better that way. It's more down-to-earth. It's going after something really out of the clear blue.
But if you've had as much training as a classical person has to have, how can you become a jazz person? I mean all of that that you absorb all those years; how can you really become a jazz person if you're not really in it? You know. So, I would say it's up to the individual who's had that training - it's up to them to get out here and to take their chances in the raw business.
That's the difficulty with jazz. Jazz is very raw. In fact, in the very beginning when we first started, you know, because of the lack of training that most black musicians had, white musicians used to ridicule our music because we didn't play in tune, they'd say; or we didn't play the notes right or we didn't go after 'em right or we didn't hold our mouthpiece right or we - like Dizzy Gillespie's got the worst embouchure in the world, you know, with his jaws poking out like that; trumpet players aren't supposed to do that and get anything out of it, but Dizzy does! And alot of other players, like Miles Davis used to bend over and play - you're not supposed to bend over and play the trumpet, you're supposed to stand up tall and play straight ahead. It's not supposed to be that way - this is the technical way of doing it, you see. And, so that's the way it was in the beginning. We were um - the stepchild of the music. In fact, we still are the stepchild of the music business, you know. Because of the fact that we don't do things according to - straight up and down the way the classical music has you doing if you're gonna go for training. You know?
Sarah Vaughan has never had any training - you would think so, with the kind of pipes that she's got. You know. But she hasn't had any training - that's what she says, she's never had any training. But still, she has a way of singing that's good enough, you know [Laughs]. But it's not necessary if you wanna sing jazz.
MB: So, it's more important to listen and feel -?
BC: Yea! It's more important in this commercial world out here to listen and feel - in fact, in anything you do, it's more important to feel. I think even in classical music. I mean, there are certain singers that will sing a song just the way it's written and everything is right and everybody will say, "She's technically wonderful but there's no feeling there." You see? Feeling is involved in anything that you do. You know what I'm saying? I mean, technique is okay. You learn all that and then let's put some heart into it after that. You know. But I think that's in everything that we touch musically. You know?
In any kind of field, commercial, or jazz, or classical - feeling is something we just have to have - automatically have anyway, for the success, I think, you know? It hasn't got anything to do with your technique or anything else - it's got something to do with what kind of heart you've got. You know?
MB: How did you get interested in jazz - going back to pre-performance?
BC: Well, it was easy in those days to hear the music and not be - we weren't overwhelmed with alot of music like we're overwhelmed with it today. In those days... and there was that separatism in the music business - black people listened to black music and white people listened to white music. You know.
My parents, of course, didn't think that I should get into jazz. They were strictly... Baptist people and, you know how Baptists think - they think that if you're doing anything other than gospel, you've got to be going down the drain. Your life is ruined. So that was more prevalent... everywhere. In fact, there were alot of white musicians who told their parents that they were getting ready to go into jazz and their parents told them that they shouldn't go into that decadent music, you see. That's what it was called. It was the kind of music that was supposed to send you straight to hell. And it was all over the place - the white people were told that by their parents, my parents told me that. And now that I'm looking back, I don't know a person out there whose parents haven't told them, at one time or the other, that that music was bad for them.
Their fears were justified in some cases, because some of the people - some of the musicians did go down the tubes; some of them became alcoholics or they became drug addicts. But I think that's in every form of life too; you just hear about that more than you hear about it anywhere else. I'm sure there are plenty of doctors who became addicts and went down the tubes or who are dead that nobody knows anything at all about today. Some old guy could probably sit and tell us about ten doctors that he knows that were great doctors, but became addicts and went down the tubes. I'm sure in any business somebody can tell you about - somebody my age and over who could tell you about somebody in the same position they're in, who had the greatest chance and everything but he became an alcoholic or he became and addict or he became this or became that or he did something wrong.
But it was more... personified, I guess, when you're in this business of show business - everybody talks about it or talks about you. It was like uh - we never got a headline of Anita O'Day being in jail but we got a headline about Billie Holiday being in jail. You see? That too happened. If you were black, you had to be perfect. But if you were white, whatever your habits were, they kept it under wraps, you didn't hear about it as much as you heard about Charlie Parker becoming an addict or you heard about Billie Holiday becoming an addict or something like that. Because there were other people out there who were strung out too, but you never heard about that.
MB: Say for instance, a person who is going to listen to this tape on the air, wants to go into the business and they would like some solid advice -
BC: On jazz, you mean? On jazz? They wanna get into jazz?
MB: On jazz - a shy person out there [Laughs] -
BC: [Laughs] A shy person out there who wants to get into jazz...
MB: - and who's performing a bit now.
BC: Well... It's not the most encouraging field out there - I can't tell a young person that. Be prepared to spend alot of time in the business. If you wanna come into jazz, be prepared to spend alot of time. Be prepared to... to get alot of discouragement from record companies. They are not going to record you. Because - now this is limited; I must qualify that. Um... if you're white and you sing jazz, say almost as... say one quarter as good as I do, you've got a chance - a white person will get a recording date. And a male - black or white - if he sings jazz - his chances of getting a recording date are much better than a black woman... who's independent getting a recording date.
Now I'm not so sure - there's a few young girls out there now who really want to dig in - I heard so much improvising yesterday on the radio. [Laughs] But these girls were recorded by other independent labels, not by major labels. Independent labels, you know. But there's alot of improvising going on. I heard alot of scatting going on everywhere. That's encouraging - that there are alot of young people who want to do it; who want to improvise; want to learn something about this music.
But be prepared for it to take you a long time and be prepared that it's not gonna make you an instant star overnight. But if you wanna do it, then do it. Stick with it and just know that it's not commercial and don't expect it to be. Expect to be in the business a long time - I've been in the business now 35 years and I've been able to live in the business 35 years; take care of my family and raise two kids and do quite well in this business. I've never had a job doing anything else.
But like I said, I came up in a time - in the 50s, which is the crucial years in the beginning - where I did get a chance to work alot to get to this point. My foundation is solid, you see. Whereas now, the places for an artist to work - for a young person to work - to get themselves together to find out if they can do this and whether they can do that and whether they can stand up in front of people. Especially a shy person, since you mentioned shyness; especially a shy person, if he or she can stand up in front of an audience and please them. You know.
This - the opportunities for them to do that is not like it was in the 50s. But - you can still do it if-you-really-wanna-do-it. It just takes longer and nobody today wants to take a long time getting into this business. You hear young people talking about being in this business for five or ten years and they think they've been in the business forever. But once you establish yourself in this business, you can continue to make money until the day you die. So, I think it's a better part of the music to sustain yourself in the business; jazz is I think. Because of the jazz artists that have been in the business as long as... forever. I mean, Count Basie's gonna die in this business; Lionel Hampton is gonna die playing; they're gonna die playing their instruments - in this business. And there's gonna be somebody watching 'em do it up until they die, you know; Ella Fitzgerald will die singing, you know. She's the oldest one of all of us, you know? And Sarah Vaughan and all of us, we'll be - um - we'll be there until we can't - 'til it's just embarrassing for us to sing anymore, you know [chuckle] when it's, you know, too much and people say, 'What is that old lady doing up there on the stage anymore', you know. That's when we'll probably give up.
But... I say that if you wanna make money... fast, then jazz isn't it. [Laughs] If you wanna stay in the business a long time, then jazz is it. But if you wanna make money, go commercial. That's the only way to make money fast.
I'm doing better now than I've ever done in my life... making money-wise, okay? Yet, when Columbia decides to put out a record of mine, or - they put out a record that I did almost 25 or 26 years ago - but never would approach me TODAY. I'm singing better today than I've ever sang. I'm more creative today than I was then. But they would never push me today to record for them. But they will put out a 25-year-old record and take advantage of the fact that I can sell the records - only because of the promotion that I have done for myself for the last 25 years. But they just put enough records out to get me on the charts to #38 and then sell all they had and then that's it. It won't cost them a dime. But they would never spend the time or think about recording me today. So, that's what's happening with this business.
I had to record on my own label - I started back in 1969, in fact I think I was probably the first independent label out there in '69. People thought I was crazy when I did it. 'How are you gonna get any distribution?' I mean, 'How are you gonna take care of business and do that yourself?' 'Don't you need somebody else?' I said, 'Listen. Nobody was comin' this way and I wanted the records out there, so I found out that I could do it myself.' So, that's what I did. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. You know. We're talking about '69 - we're talking about 15 - almost 16 years ago, you know? That's a long time ago and that was the best thing that ever happened to me, to do that. I'm very glad that I do it. And I would advise anybody that gets in the business - if they think they're good enough to be recorded by a major record company, if they can't get the major record company to agree with them, then do it yourself.
But it's gonna take time for you to create the demand for your product, you see. But you do that when you do your personal appearances somewhere. You get people curious about - 'How come I can't get a record of yours?' and you tell them where they can get one.
MB: That's interesting because like, Mary Lou Williams started Pablo - doing her records and then she had the Mary Lou label -
BC: Well Pablo is Norman Granz. That's Europe. Pablo is who records Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and people like that. Okay? Pablo really is probably the only label that really records jazz, but they're not recording any new jazz artists. They record the old people but they don't encourage youngsters to get into the business. And this is what they should - this is what they need - this is what we need. I hope one day before it's all over that I can develop my company to do something like that. But that's a few years away now. But this is what Pablo does.
But she had to start her own and a lot of other people had to do their own thing, you know, to get across. And that's what it takes sometimes. You have to do your own thing sometimes - that's what it takes, I think. You know? Especially if you're the only one who believes in you, you know... then you've gotta do it yourself!!!
©1984, 2003 Michon Boston
BETTY CARTER passed away on September 26, 1998. For more info on her life and career, visit these sites: Betty Carter: Jazz Vocalist at jazzsingers.com/BettyCarter/ and But Then She's Betty Carter at home.att.net/~timcramm/betty.htm
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