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July/August 2002

By William R. Bauer
Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter

Written in painstaking and at times painful detail, this biography of the legendary jazz singer attempts to combine the story of her life with analysis of her unique vocal style, described in Open the Door as “delayed action singing.” Bebop defined Betty Carter and Bauer works hard to explain the ways and means of that style, dissecting the music like Dexter in his laboratory (that’s the cartoon character, not the saxophonist). Bauer comes from academia and his plodding writing style seems more appropriate to an academic journal than a consumer biography. Lacking literary style, he resorts to an encyclopedic approach to biography and is simply not an effective storyteller in the short or long form. It’s a shame because Carter was an interesting and important figure in modern jazz.

Truly a musician’s singer, Carter considered herself a jazz warrior who came to life on the bandstand, reaching her audience gig by gig. Carter was ambivalent about her records and was often brutally dismissive of her efforts in that milieu. Not surprisingly, her best albums were recorded live and reflected her strengths as a performer who seemed to reach out and grab the audience by their collars, while at the same time pushing her band in unconventional directions.

Bauer carefully points out Carter’s considerable ambivalence about musical desegregation. She wanted to keep her music black, but was frustrated in her efforts to reach a wider black audience. There’s also ample description of Carter, a working mother before there was such a term, as the model of a determined and independent professional woman, whose relationships with men in the business were invariably tempestuous. Like Art Blakey, Carter became known as a developer of young talent and even the meticulous Bauer struggles to keep up with the rapid personnel changes in her groups during the last 10-15 years of her career. Unfortunately, the words “She fired …” are rarely followed by an explanation. Only her parting with long-time pianist John Hicks is explained clearly.

After years of struggling professionally, Carter’s career surged during the 1970s, when baby boomers, turned on to jazz through fusion, sought more creative practitioners. She even appeared on Saturday Night Live, the imprimatur of hip during those halcyon days of crossover mainstream jazz. Bauer tells of how Carter’s record deal with Verve in the ’80s helped to push her further into the limelight as both an artist and educator. By the ’90s, she was reaching a new level of success and notoriety due in no small part to her own perseverance and the support of a cadre of dedicated women, including Ora Harris and JoAnne Jimenez. Carter’s death in 1998 of pancreatic cancer was sudden and came as a shock to the jazz community, few of which knew of her ailment.

The size of this book is deceptive. Take away the 100 pages of transcriptions and 70 more for footnotes—by page 19, we’re up to footnote 103!—and you’re left with a 240-page biography, at least 50 pages of which is detailed musical analysis, making for nearly impossible reading for the layman fan. Singers or vocal students have much more to gain from this dry book, which never fully captures the passion and drama that was Betty Carter.

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