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Many singers in today’s world don’t think of themselves as musicians. Since their increased centrality in pop music (dating back to the Swing era), these performers use bands to “back them up”: Dr. Guy’s personal anecdotes of learning the standard songbook to get paid as an up-and coming musician are exemplary of many other instrumentalists’ experiences. Yet the “revolution” of the Bebop era, with its ideal of pushing limits, also confronted this convention. Betty “Bebop” Carter, not only avidly pursued a music career as a “raced” female, but as a musician. Through tremendous vocal control and sonic precision, she scatted in ways that sounded melodically, rhythmically, and stylistically like a bebop instrument.

Carter displayed in her singing the same ferocious idiosyncrasies of her instrumentalist contemporaries, such as Art Blakey and Charles Mingus. Songs like “Open the Door” demonstrate how Carter does not display her range for popular entertainment (as was geared Swing era music) but engages in a search for minute melodic intricacies, such as faint quarter-tones. She holds her notes, smoothing her sound as to withhold even the slightest vibrato – qualifying her sound as if she was a horn player. Her tours with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are a token to her competency to run (and even compete, as was characteristic of Bebop musical collaboration) with the most highly-regarded Bebop innovators of her time. In this respect, she was one of the few African American female singers in jazz history to enjoy many unprecedented opportunities.

Betty Carter’s work made it possible for singers to use their voice as instruments, engaging with other band members in a completely new way. While her legacy poses many challenges to singers, it also gives them the chance to use their instruments in a highly sophisticated manner, thus granting them newfound respect that was never before possible.  Check out the clip below: She may not know where her man is, but she can still scat better than most.  This is classic Bebop Betty!

Danielle Harris

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