Farewell To The Empress Of Swing

  Betty Carter, The quintessential Jazz Singer


A Blues Remembrance For Be Bop Betty

Even the heavens threatened to cry.  As the morose gray sky blended with the brackish waters of the Hudson river below, it seemed as if mother nature was bearing witness that a bright star had gone out of the world.  Across the street from Riverside Church, an American gothic treasure, with memorials from the revolutionary era at his feet and the imposing edifice of Grant’s Tomb upon the hill, brother Loqman stood on a patch of grass passionately beating out the rhythms of the Pan-African world on his Jembe drum.   

It was the same spot where he had stood during the final rites for sister Betty Shabazz, heralding her departure with the rhythms of life. The heavily dread-locked drummer appeared to believe, like Duke Ellington, that a drum is a woman, and that he has been called by the gods of mother Africa to provide the rhythms for these incandescent spirits to dance and join the ancestors.  Last time it was Betty Shabazz, this time the drum bade farewell to Betty Carter, the universally acclaimed Empress of Swing.

Well before entering the sanctuary, I surmised that the state of American high culture could be gauged by what went on In there.  For there is no art more representative of American inventiveness, democratic ideals and reverence for technical excellence than the art of Betty Carter, who embodied the uniquely American love of enterprise and innovation. Thus anyone professing some knowledge of the importance of artistic expression and its place in society should have been there with bells on.

As the eleven o’clock hour arrived and the festivities began, the church slowly filled with a stylish crowd that was mostly black, brown and beige, exposing the myth that those who love jazz artist live outside the Afro-American community.  Although we were in the heart of Manhattan, the cultural capitol of the world, judging from the complexion of the congregants it is safe to say that the Euro-American cultural elite was conspicuously underrepresented. No matter.  In spite of the backwardness of the cultural establishment, this nation’s most original contribution to western art was in very good hands, the hands of the creators. And we bade “Be Bop” Betty farewell with the high style and joie de vie that she personified in her life and art.

It was clear from jump street that we were in for a jam session of words and music – spoken, sung and swung – when the Right Reverend Doctor James A. Forbes, rector of Riverside Church, called the supplicants to “worship and invocation” then proceeded to pay homage to Be Bop Betty – whom he described as “a sister of sense and soul” – with an erudite discourse on the relationship between the jazz esthetic and the art of the African American sermon.

         The Right Reverend James Forbes

 James Forbes - Preacher of the gospel

 Offering a praise song for Betty

Seated to my right was the quintessentially hip Elombe Brath – a native New Yorker, longtime friend to Betty Carter, an artist in his own right, and political activist par excellence. And to my right sat his brother Kwame – an art photographer who has been photographing the black New York cultural scene since the great artistic awakening of the sixties with a sensitive eye and discriminating taste that calls to mind James Van der Zee’s marvelous portraits from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. Hence the question of whether it would have been truer to African American history and tradition if the memorial had been held in a Harlem venue like Abyssinia Baptist church, soon came up.

It was a fair question, given the fact that Abyssinia’s late great pastor, the Reverend Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, married jazz singer and virtuoso pianist Hazel Scott, and the present pastor, the Reverend Doctor Calvin O. Butts, has hosted jazz performances like Wynton Marsalis’s musical impressions of a Afro- American church service, “In This House On this Morning,” in the sanctuary.

But when the Right Reverend Forbes, standing in the elevated pulpit of Riverside church, elegantly bedecked in the colorful vestments of his sacred office, began to scat a sermonic jazz rap reminiscent of the great organist Jimmy Smith’s musical evocation, “The Sermon,” Elombe rose to his feet enthusiastically applauding along with the rest of the audience.  After that the question of venue was a dead issue, wiped out by the power of brother Forbes’ soulful oratory; which, like the art to which Betty Carter devoted her life, was subversive of Eurocentric esthetic standards.

The joyous tone of this convocation of remembrance for the great spirit who had brought so much pleasure to the world with her soul serenade, acquired the force of canonical law when the Veteran Jazz DJ Pat Prescott – who spoke to us in a honey smooth black female voice which has long soothed and instructed Jazz lovers in the New York Metropolitan area while dispensing ear candy over the  airwaves – announced that we had not come together to weep and moan, but rather “to celebrate the life and work of Betty Carter.”

An essential component of that celebration was the presentation of musical offerings by young musicians who had been inspired and instructed by Ms. Carter.  Hence Ms. Prescott’s remarks were punctuated by a moving acapella performance of “I Feel Like Going Home” by the Reed sisters, three young afro-American singers from the Midwestern city of Milwaukee, whom Ms. Carter had presented to New York audiences through her “Jazz Ahead” concerts, which were designed to seek out and develop the most promising jazz talents regardless of race or region.

When she kicked off what was intended to be an annual jazz festival for youths at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic theater, which is located virtually around the corner from her house, I covered it in a feature story for the Sunday Times of London. Since I will post the article on this site (see “School for Cats”) I have refrained from discussing my take on the details of Ms. Carter’s musical development and her approach to musical instruction of young artist in this essay because it can be read there.  However there was no absence of such discussion at the Riverside memorial.

 The Empress Droppin Science!

Betty Carter, The empress Teaching the young cats to swing

Dr. David Lionel Smith and Ms. Manefa Carson presented the two outstanding offerings on this subject.  Appropriately titled “Love Notes To Betty,” Dr. Smith, the dean of Faculty at Williams College, spoke to the intellectual and spiritual aspects of Ms. Carter’s art and her approach to instructing the musical apprentice.  “Music is a sacred thing,” said Dr. Smith, and reminded us once more that “Betty was an artist who celebrated truth and beauty.”  He pointed out that an essential element of her style was how she managed to create “moments of intimate communication in public performance.”

Dr. Smith told the appreciative audience “I was deeply impressed by the passion and deep intelligence in everything that she did.  She had an analytic intelligence that considered every element of a song.”  Dr. Smith went on to elucidate the factors that combined to create the personality whom we had assembled to honor: “she was a strong, smart, forceful woman.  She led her own band; formed her own record company, and made her music her way.  Even when she sang of pain it was triumphant!”

           “An Artist Who Truly Celebrated Beauty

 CarterBetty making magic

  The Empress Elegantly Weaving Her Spell

  “She often talked about the responsibility to teach the young, but she also said that she always learned something from them,” the professor recalled, and then he noted that “Her band was a jazz equivalent of the Tanglewood Summer Institute.”  To those who are hip to academic musical institutions that was quite an impressive claim, because some of the most outstanding careers in European classical music, including  that of the amazing Wynton Marsalis, started there

Dr. Smith pointed out that it was in recognition of her contributions to the education of legions of outstanding professional musicians that William’s College – a distinguished liberal arts institution of higher learning which produced such outstanding Afro-American artists and intellectuals as the path breaking historian Rayford W. Logan, and the pioneering poet/critic Sterling Brown –   awarded Betty Carter a doctorate degree.

Dr. smith concluded his presentation – the most extended riff on the gig – with proclamations from Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Dennis Archer of New York, and Detroit respectively, and a poignant love note from the nations best known saxophone player Sugar Willie Clinton, who expressed regret that he was unable to make the gig.

“I experienced Betty Carter in a way that only my brother shared,” said Ms. Carter’s oldest son Miles, who was named for the great trumpeter Miles Davis.  After observing the fact that Betty had chosen the role of single mother “before they invented the term,” he shared reminiscences about what it was like to be raised by a strong independent minded blues woman.

What emerged was the heroic image of an irrepressible artist who had to make music or die.  “When I was six years old,” Miles recalled with a smile “she threw me and my brother in a Bonneville and drove across country.  She did what mothers do during the day and gigged in clubs all night…She had only one rule about music: Listen to what you want during the week, but on Sundays we could only listen to jazz classical.”

Mile’s loving ruminations were followed by Manefa Carson, a twenty something Jazz DJ. and poet who shared her own fond memories of encounters with Betty.  She began her offering with a wonderful jazz poem which incorporated the swinging polyrhythm and unpredictable twists and turns characteristic of a Betty Carter riff – what Ralph Ellison called “rebopped bebops.”  She then told the cheering audience that Betty should be remembered as a “teacher, entrepreneur, mother, and peerless artist.”

Like Dr. Smith, Manefa also spoke to Ms. Carter’s role as an educator of young musicians.  At one point in her reverie she laughingly recalled how Betty had once scolded some young horn players about their inability to play a ballad with that loving feeling, suggesting that “they should learn how to make love to a woman” before even trying to play a ballad.  Manefa concluded her comments on Betty as educator with the observation that “Like Art Blakey, she was a university unto herself.”

After the eloquent eulogies and poignant panegyrics we came at last to what the moment was really all about…the love of music.  Music was the grand obsession which nourished the soul of the great artist whom we had congregated to honor.  It was because of the myriad ways her consummate artistry had enriched our lives, singing our stories in rhythm and rhyme that we had gathered to gather in the house of the lord to count her many blessings to us and give thanks.  It was altogether fitting that the most memorable moments should come from the special alchemy wrought by the singers, with piano players taking a close consolation prize.

We got our first glimpse of the bright musical moments that awaited us when the inimitable Abbey Lincoln rose to the occasion and offered up her version of Lionel Hampton’s “Land of the Midnight Sun,” revealing a profound spiritual beauty that I had not heard before.  And I had heard that song a thousand times.  Decked out in a black suit and fly hat, Ms. Lincoln demonstrated by example the true meaning of high style and originality, even while in vocal timbre and musical phrasing she often pointed to her roots in the exquisite vocalese of Lady Day and Dinah Washington.

By acknowledging the magnificent tradition of jazz divas while telling her story on her own voice, Ms. Lincoln paid a high honor to the grand Diva we had come to celebrate.  Her performance echoed Leon Thomas, who came and yodeled in his unique way then offered acapella musical libations to the singer he says “Showed me the path to artistic freedom.”

    A Whole Lotta Soul!      


  Abbey Sang and Made Our Spirits Dance!

 Then came high Jon the conqueror.  By starting out scatting with the band like he was just another horn, Jon Hendricks accented the instrumental aspects of Be bop Betty’s vocal style.  It is enough to know that Hendricks, a black man in apartheid America, walked away from a career in the law in order to pursue a career as a jazz singer to recognize that he was bitten by the same bug that infected Be-bop Betty.  Like her, he is one of a kind.  So when the great Jon Hendricks started crooning “There Will never ever be another you,” I could feel in my soul that he was telling the truth, and the realization of the profundity of our loss was nearly overbearing.

 Jon Hendricks

The King Of Jazz Vocalese


  He Plumbed The Depth Of Our Loss With His Song

 I doubt that there has ever been any class of vocalist who love the art of instrumentalists’ more than jazz singers.  The best of them use their voices as if they were horns, God’s trombones.  It is a reflection of the unique symbiotic relationship between singer and instrumentalist that literally defined the art of jazz from jump street.  All the early jazz instrumentalist sought to imitate the human voice on their horns.

But as the instrumental art became more complex the singers started imitating them.  Betty Be bop once told men in no uncertain terms “I am not a gospel singer!  And I didn’t learn to sing in the church; I was checking out cats like Bird and Dizzy.”   No gospel shouts for this free thinking eulipian, she liked to swing, do Bird and Dizzy’s thing.  Thus it should have surprised none but the most untutored ears to hear the baddest cats in the Apple wailing at her wake.

The cats who lined up with their axes waiting to blow a chorus in honor of the Empress of Swing ranged from the departed sound sorcerer’s  apprentices to great masters like the gap sealer, the little big man himself, the hard swinging incomparably lyrical tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath.  Some giants of the genre like Max Roach, the most influential percussionist alive, chose not to join the band.  Max tapped out a very personal salutation on the cymbals then returned to his seat, while tenor saxophone icon Sonny Rollins and trumpet master Little Joe Gardner sat silently in the shadows.

While every note that ascended to the high ceiling of the sanctuary seemed to touch some special place in our hearts, next to the singers nothing moved me like the solo piano meditations of Danny Mixon and Cryus Chestnut.  Mixon, who was once married to the queen, thrilled us with a demonstration of the just how powerful music can be when virtuosity is made to serve the deepest sentiments of the soul, and Cyrus Chestnut played “If I should lose You “ with such elegance and profound melancholy I began to wonder if the stars might really fall.

Cyrus Chestnut


 One Of Betty’s many Protégés

I left Riverside church feeling the sense of urgency James Van der Zee describes when he was compelled to take up his camera and try to preserve the happenings of the Harlem renaissance for future generations, so that they will  know what went on in that enchanted place and time.  He said it suddenly occurred to him that “a picture last forever.”  Well so does an essay, I said to myself as I hurried home to my Mac.

After writing feverishly through the night with the music of the Empress of Swing filling the room, repeatedly imbibing libations of Brazilian coffee and Jamaican lamb’s bread, I suddenly felt the urge to dance.  Although lacking the grace and creativity of dance master George Faison, who had been moved by the spirits of the ancestors to rise from his seat in the sanctuary and compose an impromptu dance at the Riverside memorial, I never-the-less arose from my desk and proceeded to bop off time to the relentless swing of the Empress singing “I love music.”

As I faced the eastern horizon and danced to the blues and abstract truths of the Empress’ song, the sun began to rise and a crimson glow fell over the Harlem landscape – which is clearly visible from my crib atop Sugar Hill.  Like the ancient Igungun ritual of the yoruba, I felt that I had called forth the spirit of Be Bop Betty, and in my mind’s eye I could see her spirit dancing in the crimson clouds that cut a swath across the heavens as Sunday came to Harlem.

I could see her as clearly as the rising sun: shoulders hunched and swaying as she gracefully walked the floor groovin to the rhythm, swinging hard with sophistication and soul, controlling the tempo of the relentless swing with and iron hand, king apple jack cap sassily cocked duce tray on her bobbing head – which was thrown back in that defiant posture Betty always assumed when she was really swinging and daring the boys in the band to match her fire.



 * To view Betty Carter as a tutor of young musicians click this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7YxJD7x99E

* To View Ms. Carter in perfoemance live click this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNPswH_jooA

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

* Portrait of Abby Lincoln by Frank Stewart





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