Some arts are best defined by example, and there were few better examples of jazz singing than Betty Carter. Few singers proved so conclusively that vocal jazz need not be tainted by commercialism or histrionics, and even fewer were as willing to take risks in the name of improvisation. Carter, who died in September of pancreatic cancer, at the age of sixty-nine, confronted both pop standards and songs indigenous to jazz with a musing skepticism worthy of Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins—swooping down on a melody and lifting it to a crescendo, subjecting it to abrupt shifts in tempo and dynamics, occasionally abandoning it altogether for a bold, Parker-like harmonic paraphrase. Carter phrased like a horn player because she thought like one; especially on uptempos, but even on ballads, a rhythm section wasn't there just to accompany her, but for her to spar with.
"I remember one time I was playing some of the obvious changes, and she was like 'uh, uh, uh, uh,"' Jacky Terrasson, who was Carter's pianist for a year beginning in 1993, told The New York Times shortly after her death. "She wanted to make sure that we stayed in the area where we weren't very sure where we were going to go and where it kept the spontaneity going."
Carter was also a consummate actress. She knew that a singer is a musician, that the voice is an instrument subject to the same demands as a trumpet or tenor saxophone. But she also understood that no improviser bears a greater burden (or, the way she looked at it, enjoys a greater advantage) than the improvising singer, who must do justice to words as