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Spunky Carter Enjoying Acclaim

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 40 years after she talked Lionel Hampton into letting her sit in with his band and then blew him away with her rendition of “The Man I Love,” jazz singer Betty Carter retains much of her original brass.

Hampton was so impressed that he invited her to join his band--Carter’s first professional job--and she stayed on from 1948 to 1951. But, during those years, her outspoken ways caused her to be booted from the band and rehired on numerous occasions. Mainly, she thought be-bop, not Hampton’s swing, was the hippest thing going in jazz, and she let her boss know it in no uncertain terms.

Carter, who plays Elario’s tonight through Sunday, remains opinionated. But, at 61, her opinions come out as informed, expert commentary from someone warm and patient. Gone are the provocative tongue-lashings of youth.

She is annoyed, for example, that her record label (Verve) didn’t make a video in support of her last recording, 1990’s “Droppin’ Things,” which mixes several of Carter’s original tunes with typically radical reworkings of standards. One can easily envision a tongue-in-cheek video for the title cut, her homage to nervous reactions in a budding romance.

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“But they (Verve) don’t seem to be interested in investing the money in jazz artists doing conceptual videos,” said Carter, who has lived in the same three-story Brooklyn brownstone since 1971. “We’re selling more jazz albums now than ever. It would seem to me they’d take advantage of this and take the next step to market the product.”

And she frankly admitted she has no desire to work with jazz’s living legends. She prefers playing with fresh, young talent, as she always has. Among the players who earned their first stripes in Carter’s bands are Buster Williams, John Hicks and Mulgrew Miller.

Carter’s new, as-yet-unrecorded backup trio consists of 19-year-old bass phenom Ariel Roland, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and pianist Cyrus Chestnut.

“I’m looking forward to the new generation, not going back for anything,” Carter said in her throaty, friendly purr.

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Carter has aged gracefully. Her voice has all the facility, finesse and most of the range of her youth, but it is smoother now, classy instead of brassy. It is a Rolls Royce, not a Ferrari.

“Everybody’s voice changes as they get older,” Carter said. “It gets thicker. If you listen to Sarah Vaughan and Ella in the early days, their voices were light, young, fresh, wonderful. As they got older, their voices became heavier. My range is lower, but you can switch keys to compensate. Or you can stay in your keys and use your voice to compensate. I have stayed in the same keys on practically all of my songs.”

Carter is her own harshest critic. She is appreciative but not knocked out by early albums such as the 1961 “Ray Charles and Betty Carter,” a critically acclaimed association that gave her career a needed boost.

“They sound young. When you look back, you say, ‘Great, it (the album) was the first one I did that did anything, and it is probably one of the records that will be sold forever and ever.’ ”

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She declines, however, to single out her favorites among the more than a dozen albums she has made.

“They’re all different. I want to continue to try to do different stuff, creative stuff. That’s my goal. And to turn the world on to a lot of different musicians and hope they go on to make some money. I better get better, or else nothing’s going to happen.”

Carter, who is divorced and has two grown sons, has a new man in her life, but wouldn’t give details.

“I’m in love, that’s all,” she said.

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The singer was born--the middle sibling among five children--in Flint, Mich., and grew up in Detroit, one of the hippest places to be during the late 1940s, the budding days of be-bop. As a teen-ager, she studied music at the Detroit Conservatory of Music but said she picked up most of what knows about music by playing Detroit clubs with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and others.

Carter names Hampton’s wife, Gladys, as her primary female role model, a source of her strong survival instinct.

“She ran his band, and she helped me an awful lot. She kept me with the band those times when he wanted me out.”

Carter finally left Hampton’s band for good in 1951 to pursue a solo career in New York City, where she sang in a variety of venues and recorded a pair of critically acclaimed albums: “Betty Carter” (1953) and “Out There” (1958).

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Besides recording the landmark album with Charles during the early 1960s, Carter toured with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and formed her own label, Bet-Car. As the British rock invasion and other pop music pushed jazz from the limelight, having a label of her own was the only way Carter could get her music out.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Carter released four albums on Bet-Car and kept her career in motion with a steady diet of small club and college campus dates. As other jazz singers turned to pop and lighter forms of music in search of broader audiences, Carter continued to earn the nickname Hampton gave her: Betty Bebop.

Momentum shifted in her favor during the 1980s. Her 1980 album “An Audience With Betty Carter” earned a Grammy nomination, as did the 1983 “Whatever Happened to Love.”

In 1988, Carter’s career turned an important corner. She made her current three-album deal with Verve, which also includes the re-release of earlier material. She had three albums in the top 15 on Billboard’s jazz chart at once: the re-released duet with Charles, a second with Carmen McRae and her own “Look What I Got!” She also made a guest appearance on “The Bill Cosby Show” and was the subject of a media feeding frenzy including front-page splashes in USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor.

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“Staying healthy is the main thing. If you don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, you can stay around a long time. You’ve got to be nice to yourself!”

Last month, Carter played the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel, appearing with Spyro Gyra, Eddie Harris and European bands in front of 1,500 jazz fans.

“And I’m getting ready to do a book about what happened to me in the business,” Carter added. “I lived this music plenty deep as a female. I think I can give the female side.


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