I had planned on putting this post up in time for International Jazz Day but I never was good at deadlines.
You and I might both know that Whiplash was the most misunderstood satirical comedy of our time, but it's still telling sign that the only female character in the movie was basically labeled 'distraction' (I'm not even sure she had a name!) and so I'm always delighted to find female role models in jazz. Everyone needs a role model and mine is Betty Carter. Betty Carter was a masterful singer of course, but she was also a ferocious band leader, songwriter and arranger. Now my music might not sound anything like Betty Carter's but that's besides the point. I don't think imitation is necessarily the best way to learn from a role model, I think understanding their intent can be much more helpful, leading you to develop your own sound (that's not to say you shouldn't be transcribing like mad! I've transcribed loads of Betty Carter and loved every second of it).
.....I've gone on a tangent, that's a topic for another day. Back to Betty Carter.
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One of my favourite Carter arrangements is Trolley Song and last year I analysed and wrote about it for college (I studied Jazz Performance). I'm going to share a little of that essay with you here because I think it captures some of the reasons I'm fascinated with Carter's arranging and performance style but keep in mind that it was written for another context.
Late Betty Carter’s Lyrical Delivery on Broadway Standards
The Audience With Betty Carter (Betcar 1979, later re-issued on Verve)
Carter’s interpretation of Trolley Song (audio example; full track 21) was my initial incentive to analyse Carter’s approach to lyrics further. How she turned a rather innocent, inoffensive ditty about a young girl falling for a man at first sight into an honest expression of timeless love and loss is a shining example of her unique capacity to re-craft words to suit her purpose.
The lyrics of the opening verse are insipid: a seemingly shallow girl who begins her love story by describing what she is wearing followed by what her suitor is wearing:
With my high starched collar
And my high topped shoes
And my hair
Piled high upon my head
I went to lose a jolly
Hour on the Trolley
And lost my heart instead
With his light brown derby
And his bright green tie
He was quite
The handsomest of men
And Carter reveals the skittish, impulsive nature of the lyrics by delivering them fast and with few breaks. Uncharacteristically for Carter the phrasing and tone is quite uniform with no one word emphasized above others. It sounds exactly like the trivial, though excited, rambling that it is (audio example: track 22).
There could have been another factor influencing the choice of tempo. I mentioned before that Carter had an extremely combative leadership style and it did not always work out in her favour, particularly with male players who did not always take stern direction from female singers kindly. Kenny Washington speaks of the many ways that the band would attempt to undermine Carter’s authority and one was that they would intentionally push the tempo on this song to force her into performing the dense lyrics at breakneck speed. If however this is what we are hearing on this recording the prank failed, Carter has no
problem keeping up.
At twenty-eight seconds in the central device of this arrangement kicks in and the band goes into half time (audio example: track 23). Carter’s delivery here can be interpreted in many ways at once and every time I listen a slightly different interpretation stands out to
me. One is that this is a sexual awakening of a young girl, the deepening and slurring of her voice (in particular “I fell’ 50, audio example: track 24), the slower tempo, as well as the humorous innuendo of the wordless vocals (audio example: track 25), all subtly speak of a sensuality that’s absent from the opening verse. You can also hear
the ‘smile’ in the narrowing of her vowels that I spoke of in Seems Like Old Times; here it has a cheeky, knowing quality (audio example: track 26). This arrangement device could simultaneously be interpreted as an almost cinematic description of time ‘slowing down’ during a romantic encounter.
The band remains in half time for the following verse which allows Carter space to play with the phrasing much more. Here the tone is much more casual, describing the story plainly: “He tipped his hat, took a seat”(audio example; track 27) and here she makes a slight adjustment to the original lyric: Instead of “He said he hoped he hadn't / Stepped upon my feet” Carter sings: “And then he said ‘did I step on your feet honey?” the spoken sentence delivered in a deep masculine timbre and in a believably conversational way that is extremely difficult to perform convincingly. Often when singer attempt to perform lyrics as if spoken in a conversation by another character they veer very quickly into musical theatre but Carter’s delivery is authentic and believable.
Carter often alters lyrics slightly to suit her purpose. Her thoughts on the matter seemed to be that as an improvising musician she is entitled to alter melodies and lyrics as she sees fit so long it is at the service of the intent of the song:
“ If you can improve on a composers lyric, make them more understandable. Now my musicianship allows me to improvise…but I never lost the meaning of the lyric.”
Bauer, in his analysis of another song in Carters repertoire (I Could Write A Book) speaks of how “her revisions frequently masked the lyrics’ rhyme scheme, for example, averting the “jingle” at phrase endings that can often trivialize a song’s message” which is exactly
what she does here. She is also giving the suitor in the story an identity, literally giving him a voice rather than simply an outfit.
Carter skips some verses that appear in the original and gets straight to the point, when the suitor is about to leave but decides to stay. There is a sense of excitement and joy, Carter moves into a higher register, sustains certain words and the band reacts by building intensity with hits, a rise in dynamic and the piano moves into upper register (audio example: track 28).
The delivery of the lyric ‘just to stand with his hand holding mine’, the emotional apex of the song, demands closer attention (audio example: track 29). The tone she uses on the word ‘hand’ is different from all the subtle variations of timber she has used up until this
point. In a song full of jokey innuendo and frivolous conversational lyrics here is a lyric delivered with utter heartfelt longing. You find this timber (which the Complete Vocal Institute calls ‘curbing’, and describes it as similar to a ‘wail, moan, or whine’) often in pop
and RnB music where it’s used for it’s poignant sentimental effect. When used here, isolated to only one word, I find it extremely effective. The earnest pining in the delivery is in complete contrast with the giddy skittishness of the start.
When the band returns to the fast paced triplet vamp from the beginning of the song (audio example; track 30) the excitement and joy in Carter’s voice is replaced by something new. Phrases start to ‘de-tune’, slurring downwards as the band grows quieter and quieter (audio example: 31). This ending has a sense of weary perpetuality to it.
As with many of her performances the subtle nuance allows for many interpretations to exist simultaneously. One might be that the weariness, the pauses in phrasing, the lack of energetic excitement heard earlier in the song, speaks of the winding down of a relationship, the repetition adding a sense of inevitability. Whereas the start of the song is a naïve look at first love perhaps the ending is describing the difficulty in sustaining that excitement. Or perhaps the repeated ‘till the end of the line’ could be interpreted with a
more existential slant. That is certainly the interpretation that struck me on first listen: that this song was a sped up look at a young girl maturing, becoming aware of the world around her and of her own faculty, and finally, a growing awareness of her own mortality.
What Betty Carter did that was so unique was to display such subtle agility in her nuanced delivery. Rather than relying on the familiar tropes of female characters within jazz standards with their linear narratives (the woman scorned, the young ingénue in love…etc.) Carter tells the story in a way that closer resembles the human experience,
with all its subjectivity, volatility and uncertainty. Often in songs the story or emotion is simplified to allow for ease of communication but Carter takes a simple story and re-instills it with human complexity: Carter may still be playing the role of a woman scorned but her response to her wrongdoing is not a simple uniform weariness
throughout the song, it varies from moment to moment, from lyric to lyric, from weariness to doubt, from nostalgia to giddiness and everything in between. Carter shifts the emotional intent of a lyric in real time mid song, mid sentence and sometimes in the middle of a single word. For me these songs are like reading a book where the reader is given insight into a characters train of thought so that we are not only told what the character experiences, but we get to experience it with them.