Carmen Rae and Sarah Vaughan called her the greatest pure jazz singer - not a trifle for leading ladies in jazz who knew what they were talking about. Lillie Mae Jones, born on May 16, 1930 in Flint, Michigan, was a bebop fanatic who won an amateur contest at the Paradise Theater in Detroit at sixteen. She gigged with Dizzie Gillespie’s Big Band and Charlie Parker before hitting the road with Lionel Hampton, who dubbed her “Betty Bebop” and had the privilege of firing and re-hiring the fiery prodigy seven times in two-and-a-half years. ”... I was around a lot of jazz musicians in my early career. So it’s in my blood...” confirmed Carter years later. On her own as a club singer in the 50’s, she paired up with Ray Charles in 1960; their unforgettable Baby It’s Cold Outside was a hit. The decade, however, was not an easy period for jazz. Recording companies wanted to make quick money and the money was in pop. But Betty Carter was not one to conform to any trend. In 1969 she founded her own label, Bet-Car, which, though shaky, allowed her to learn about self-marketing and do things her way. “That’s what jazz is all about. It’s improvising... changing things around... doing something different with a piece of music... It’s [jazz] not going anywhere unless we get some new ideas. We’ve got to market the music in a different way.”
Betty Carter got her way. Polygram Records (Verve label) offered her a major contract in 1988. Great American Music Hall Records issued a live duet session with Carmen McRae, which won a Grammy nomination. At age 59, after over 40 years of refusing to cop out, the Grammy Award she did receive for Look What I Got!
On January 10, 1992, The American Jazz Masters helped Betty make a dream come true by awarding her and two other jazz artists one-time-only fellowships of $20,000 each. Betty Carter Big Band With Strings: The Music Never Stops was born: a ninety-minute, non-stop performance with her trio, two guest trios, six strings, and a seventeen-piece band. “That’s a challenge to me,” she said, “... because I have to continuously move and sing for about 90 minutes ... it’s never been done before in this manner. Yes, I take risks and this is certainly one.” In April 1992 she was one of the Jazz Education Hall of Fame winners (along with Dizzie Gillespie and J. Richard Dunscomb) for their “contributions and dedication to jazz education over the past 25 years.”
A one-woman jazz university she is indeed, scouting around for promising young talents and rounding them up for an unbelievable musical education in the form of Jazz Ahead, whose major goals are not only to showcase emerging jazz talents, but above all to foster a genuine appreciation for jazz in young African-Americans. The week of composing and arranging is capped off by a weekend of concerts. “It’s not just about music,” says trumpeter Riley Mullins, “it’s about spiritual unity and love.” Betty maintains that “...if you want to stick your neck out and find out something about yourself, you have to think...when you think differently, you say differently.”
And that, exactly, is what Betty Carter does. Said Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, “...for sheer inventiveness, imagination and ability to make a song into a living drama, Carter probably has no peer.” Anyone who has witnessed a performance by Betty Carter can vouch for that.