Jazz and Pop, Youth and Middle Age like Young

By Francis Davis | Go to book overview

Betty Carter, For Example

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

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Jazz and Pop, Youth and Middle Age like Young
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Also by Francis Davis *
  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Advertisements for Myself xi
  • Part One - Voices *
  • Swin G and Sensibility 3
  • The Great Hoagy 19
  • Not Singing Too Much 27
  • Billie Holiday, Cover Artist 39
  • Betty Carter, for Example 49
  • Part Two - Change of the Century *
  • Bud's Bubble 57
  • The Sound of One Finger Snapping 66
  • Aftershocks 77
  • Taken: the True Story of an Alien Abduction - (A Conversation with Sun Ra) 83
  • Rashaan, Rashaan 94
  • Inward 99
  • A to Z 106
  • Charlie Haden, Bass 116
  • ornette 134
  • The 1970s, Religious and Circus 141
  • Like Young 156
  • In His Father's House 169
  • Leaving behind a Trail 176
  • Some Recordings 186
  • On Stage and Screen 200
  • Part Three - Here and There *
  • Tourist Point of View 219
  • Time Difference 223
  • Part Four - Undercover *
  • Man Lost. Songs Found 235
  • Country vs. Western 242
  • Elvis Presley's Double Consciousness 246
  • Beached 256
  • Everybody's Composer 263
  • The Best Years of Our Lives 281
  • Infamous 297
  • Victim Kitsch 304
  • The Moral of the Story from the Guy Who Knows 316
  • Index 339
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