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Betty Carter’s School of Spontaneity

The late singer gave tough-love lessons to generations

Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter in Washington, D.C., 1998
Betty Carter in Washington, D.C., 1998
Carmen Lundy (seated at table) and Jason Moran (fourth from left) work with Jazz Ahead students at the Kennedy Center in 2013
2013 residency participants of Jazz Ahead at the Kennedy Center

Twenty years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music-operated Majestic Theater, vocalist Betty Carter gathered 20 promising young jazz musicians for two nights of performances. The concerts were billed “Betty Carter: Jazz Ahead ’94,” and they featured many players who would go on to become some of the leading jazz artists of the early 21st century. Before the shows, Carter engaged the young artists in vigorous workshops for five days, teaching them the ropes of grade-A jazz performance.

Jazz Ahead would soon develop into an acclaimed annual weeklong residency in which Carter recruited burgeoning talent from around the world. She recruited many musicians at the annual conference of the now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education, and by visiting various schools, including Berklee College of Music. Striving for originality was paramount for all of Carter’s students; she also required participants to write original material.

In a CBS Sunday Morning segment filmed two years before her passing in 1998, Carter described her process for coaching young talent. “I listen very hard,” she explained. “I try to get them to avoid the clichés in order to become an individual and to become creative, because clichés are all over the place and anybody can do that. But if you want to hang in there for a long time, then you have to really be an individual-be something somebody would never forget.”

Journalist Willard Jenkins, who worked with the Jazz Ahead program in its early years as a consultant, recalls how Carter would divide the students into small groups so that they could develop their individual voices while at the same time learning how to better work within an ensemble. “She was a constant presence. She had a real hands-on relationship with these young people,” Jenkins says. “It wasn’t a situation where they were off somewhere rehearsing and then Betty came in on the night of the program.”

The roster of astonishing musicians who came up through Jazz Ahead is too great to list here in full. But the alumni include such singular artists as pianists Jason Moran, Jacky Terrasson, Cyrus Chestnut and Aaron Parks, saxophonist and vocoder player Casey Benjamin, saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Jon Irabagon, violinist Miri Ben-Ari, singing trio the Reed Sisters and multi-instrumentalist Peven Everett.

According to Mikki Shepard, the BAM Majestic Theater’s co-director along with Leonard Goines, the experience of Jazz Ahead was artistically beneficial for Carter as well. “[Carter] loved working with new artists, as they stretched her too,” Shepard says. “She had a very youthful way about her and firmly believed this was due to her involvement on a regular basis with young people.”

During the first Jazz Ahead, Jenkins remembers Carter homing in on Everett, who at the time played jazz trumpet but has since become a distinguished and prolific artist on the neo-soul and electronica scenes. “He was pretty green at the time,” Jenkins recalls. “[Carter] took a real special interest in people that she saw had a lot of potential but weren’t quite getting there. Some of these young people had a sense that they were on their way. Peven was kind of raw, but he was someone that she felt a strong sense from.”

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Originally Published