Her phrasing is reminiscent of Billie Holiday; her deep range brings to mind Sarah Vaughn. She's won several awards and made classic contributions to the history of jazz, including a universally acclaimed duet release with Ray Charles. But perhaps what stands out most about Betty Carter -- aside from her brilliant singing, of course -- is her unflappable integrity.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Carter was a beacon of legitimacy. The much-maligned fusion movement -- fueled by talented young players and embraced by patriarch Miles Davis -- was taking over the genre and achieving enviable popularity in the process. Music-industry executives, with their eyes on the bottom line, wanted to cash in on the trend, telling players to either go pop, go electric or go home. Rather than concede to the commercial pressures of the era, Carter formed her own label and continued to focus on music true to her bebop vision. That bold move made her one of the few black women ever to head a record company, and in time, her persistence paid off. Her following grew, particularly on the college circuit; by the 1980s, she was a perennial winner in various jazz reader and critics' polls.
Such tenacity defines Carter, who's been doing things her way since pulling stints as a singer on Lionel Hampton's bandstand in the '40s and '50s. Hampton's Orchestra was a swing unit, and bebop wasn't exactly in vogue; the feisty vocalist and the accomplished bandleader had several run-ins, resulting in Hampton firing her on several occasions. The two eventually parted ways for good in 1952, and since then, Carter has spent the years refining her unique vocal style, one that utilizes hornlike phrasing, complex melodic variations and intonation that often sounds more like a reed instrument than a voice.
A bold ambassador determined to keep jazz vital, Carter continues to play an invaluable role as a mentor and educator. Much like the Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis bands, Carter's trio has been a training ground for young jazz musicians. Many of today's finest jazz artists -- Stephen Scott, Benny Green, Mulgrew Miller, Cyrus Chestnut, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash and Jackie Terrason, to name a few -- were once members of Carter's band. That track record bodes well for Houston native Eric Harland, the drummer in the singer's current trio.
Carter's dedication to education extends far beyond recruiting the best young players for her own use. Each year, she sponsors the Jazz Ahead program, an intense, weeklong workshop based in Brooklyn, New York, where she coaches, analyzes, critiques and generally inspires young musicians. Jazz Ahead focuses on creativity, experimentation and expanding the jazz vocabulary. Sounds a lot like Carter's career in a nutshell.
-- Paul MacArthur
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Betty Carter and Her Trio perform at 8 p.m. Friday, March 20, at the Cullen Theater at Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue. Ticket are $21 to $41. For info, call 524-5050 or 629-3700.
Freight Hoppers -- In many parts of the world -- including Texas -- fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass translates to bluegrass. But there's another style in circulation these days that uses the same instrumentation to create a completely different sound: It's called old-time music, a tradition born and raised in the mountains of Appalachia. Unlike bluegrass, old-time is more freeform, the musicians playing in unison, each improvising within the melody. It is almost the inverse of bluegrass: anarchy versus the establishment, the back porch versus the concert hall. In the 1970s, old-time music began to seep out of the mountains and into more urban settings, where it was embraced by a new wave of rebellious acoustic youth. Though the music has gained a wider following over the years, it generally remains confined to points east of the Mississippi, and ignorance of the term in low-lying locales abounds. But one of the next generation of old-time bands, the Freight Hoppers, has embarked on a western tour that should open a few more ears to the unfettered throbbings of this loose, high-energy format. Itinerant fiddler David Bass, with his savantlike stage presence and impeccable sense of timing, leads his band mates into an unconscious, high-altitude zone that exposes the true old-time soul. At 7 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at Steak and Ale, 11109 Katy Freeway. Cover is $5. 467-5050. (Bob Burtman)
The Pistoleros -- The Pistoleros might have been a much different band if Doug Hopkins had sobered up and hung around long enough. After his falling out with the Gin Blossoms and before his death by suicide, Hopkins joined founding Pistoleros Mark and Lawrence Zubia for a raucous stint with their previous group, the Chimeras, his scorching lead guitar sending their mid-tempo roots rock into tequila-tainted overdrive. As it is now, though, this Tempe, Arizona, quintet is not unlike a wild west Del Amitri, all pristine pop melodies and relaxed, lady-killer swagger, plus the infrequent bow to the group's southwestern ties. Not that that's such a bad thing: The Pistoleros' debut, Hang on to Nothing, front-loads a generous number of radio-friendly hooks into its first half, leaving us almost charmed enough to ignore the rest of the album's well-recorded filler. Played live, even the limper material ought to grow cojones, because with or without Hopkins, the Zubias kick up a pound of dust on-stage. With Kenny Wayne Shepherd at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Tickets are $20.50 to $28.50. 629-3700. (Hobart Rowland