One of the most inventive vocal stylists in all of jazz, Betty Carter not only brought a gift for radical improvisation, a "breathy" artful style at times and a hip scatting flow, but she also brought an independent spirit with her own Bet-Car record label, where she sold albums direct to fans and stores out of the trunk of her car.
She grew up in Detroit and was singing in the nightclubs as a teenager, due to possessing a fake ID. Early experience with Dizzy Gillespie was a huge influence on her, as well as early encounters with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach. At 19 she joined Lionel Hampton's band (the same unit that Charles Mingus was a member of at the time). In the early '50s she found herself based in NYC and touring a lot in the South. She toured with Miles, recorded duos with King Pleasure and sang at The Apollo.
After that successful boost she was well on her way to a recording career of her own star. She famously sang with the Ray Charles band, cutting duet sides with him and went to Japan with Sonny Rollins in '63. A natural musical visionary, she was often outspoken toward bandleaders about how she thought the music should be. In fact, she refused to sing pop music, which kept her visibility down a bit in the late '60s.
Frustrated with music industry games, she started her own label in '69 and focused on booking herself at colleges. (She had always took an interest in teaching jazz history and mentoring younger musicians). The '70s saw her touring all over the Americas and Europe and she even appeared as musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Her profile was as high as ever in the '80s when she hooked up with Verve, who released new material and reissued Bet-Car albums onto CD.
She has been the subject of two documentaries: a 1980 flick But Then, She's Betty Carter and a '94 film Betty Carter: New All The Time. She had become a big-ticket act by the time of her passing from cancer and with that the world lost one of its major singers, a vocalist who used her voice as if it were a horn, an interpreter who retold stories in song into her own, a woman with fierce dedication to her craft, an artist who refused to slum to commercial tricks and a great who held a reputation as a commanding live performer.