Once Ella died, she was the greatest living jazz singer. Some would argue that, in a way, she was the only true jazz singer, the only one who sang everything with the note-to-note freedom of a horn player. No one, including Betty Carter herself, ever knew for certain how she was going to get to her next note. She might bend it so much that it came out as a series of microtones, or she might suddenly throw in a two-beat rest just to let the music breathe a little.
She would drive her young pianists crazy that way. But they always took care of business. If they didn't, they might as well get a job back in their local body and fender shop. Betty Carter was the young pianist's bar exam: If you could play for her, you were ready to do just about anything jazz had to offer.
Ask pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Stephen Scott, Mulgrew Miller and Benny Green. Or drummer Lewis Nash. She was a school all to herself the way very few great jazz musicians have been. (In fact, her only modern peers in that regard were Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Charles Mingus.) If you were good enough to pass the entrance exam to Betty Carter U., you were already something. If you were good enough to stick around for a few months -- or a few years -- you were something times 10.
She died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at age 69. She was not only the greatest woman in current jazz, by far, but the greatest of all jazz feminists. And whether folk rocker Ani DiFranco knew it or not, she was the model for what DiFranco would become.
At a certain point in the '60s, Betty Carter came to understand that she and the business of music were at war -- that record executives would always think of her as a "chick singer," with all that implied. They would feel free to drown her in pop string goop and would be happy, if she let them, even to tell her what to wear when she performed.
Some singers actually gain from such "guidance." Not Betty Carter. She was made of steel. And -- crucially -- she had the brilliance to back it up.
So she dropped out of their music and made her own. She formed her own Bet-Kar records, marketed them herself and made life a living hell for any record company that found a live Carter session tape in a drawer and released it as Betty-approved.
For many years, her biggest -- and only -- supporters were jazz critics and other jazz musicians. Because flying terrified her, you could only catch her very rare appearances in New York.
The first time I saw her was in New York's Village Vanguard in the late '60s. It remains one of the greatest jazz performances I've ever witnessed. It was just Carter and her trio, and she was phenomenal. I never heard a jazz singer do a fraction of what I heard her do that night. Even my wife -- whom I dragged against her will to jazz performances for 20 years -- was electrified.
She did a lot of it with her teeth -- huge, beautiful things that the actress in her bared sometimes in a massive smile of exultation and the musician in her used as a kind of mute. In other words, her broadest smiles were just another way of altering her sound as she sang. It was always about the music.
She was never a beautiful woman by any definition -- not like her contemporary Abbey Lincoln -- but she had so much presence, charisma, sensuality and vitality that she was more attractive (in a literal sense) than mere beauty could ever be. And she knew it, too.
As the audience that night quickly came to understand that it was witnessing something rare, she quickly picked up on the audience's ecstasy and was even better. Here was an artist who, at that stage of her life, was scrapping and fighting for every bit of her career and, finally, had an audience that was alive to every note, every rest.
Times changed. Jazz's exile from young ears ended. Its reputation exploded as its authenticity and integrity were better understood. She was signed by a major jazz label with the taste to leave her alone and the clout to back up whatever she did -- Verve, a branch of the international Polygram family. I saw her a few times after that magical night at the Vanguard (she was a not-infrequent area visitor). She was always great, but never transcendent as she had been that night.
I loved the grande dame Betty Carter as much as the feisty, brilliant Betty Carter of three decades before. She changed forever the way it would be for women in jazz and probably women in all non-classical music. She gave them back their own art and their own destinies. She deserved to be a queen.
It's a role for which the mediocre need not apply. But then, Betty Carter never applied for it. It just found her, and the world was better off.