Me and Lillie Mae Jones
Tonight’s session consisted of two+ hours of intense focused listening to recordings by the great jazz vocalist Lillie Mae Jones. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of her? Oh, you may know her by the name Lorene Carter. No? Betty Bebop? Getting closer…yup, that’s right…BETTY CARTER! The one and only!
Not a lot of energy for a lot of piano and vocal work tonight as I’m still trying to recover from lots of yummy delicious Thanksgiving food! My hubby prepared his first Thanksgiving meal this year and he did an AMAZING job. We had Thanksgiving breakfast with my family that morning and then headed over to my in-laws place where Brian Settles threw down in the kitchen! LOL! I went to my mother’s house last night where I scarfed down leftovers…YUMMY!
O.k., I’m digressing…Dangit! Food is such a distraction to me! LOL! Back to Betty: In preparation for my lecture presentation and concert at the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum this spring, I’m reading William Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life of Betty Carter, acquiring her recordings that I don’t have and watching a bunch of videos of her in performance.
My love affair with Betty Carter started sometime during my first year at The New School. I borrowed The Betty Carter Album cassette (Don’t laugh. It was 1993, y’all!) from the New York Performing Arts Library and proceeded to listen to it on my walkman…incessantly. I had never heard anything like it. Mostly original compositions that she had written/arranged herself and AMAZING singing/delivery. When I listened, I was transported to the most beautiful land of sound. Her singing does that. She creates her own world! I even had the opportunity to see her live in concert in New York City at a place called S.O.B.’s. I was so young…too young to really understand. I don’t remember a lot of what I saw and heard but I do remember a young bassist that I thought was going to die that night! LOL! She WORKED him. It’s a shame, but I don’t even remember who he was…I really wish I was older then and could’ve really appreciated her the way I do now. But at least I can say I got to see her live. I got on the Metro bus here in DC last week with my book in hand and sat down next to an older white gentleman who went nuts! LOL! “Betty Carter! She was my favorite singer! Betty Bebop!” Turns out, he used to teach a jazz history class and we had a nice chat about the music before I reached my stop. Yeah…that was nice!
So I’m narrowing down the song selections I will perform on the concert. The challenge will be to present them in a way that is my own but also be true to her spirit and legacy. She would NOT want somebody to be up there singing her songs exactly the way she sang them. Betty Carter was all about being an individual and she encouraged…no demanded that from the musicians that she mentored. I’m really looking forward to what I will learn from this experience and how my singing and musicianship will grow. I’ve always been afraid of improvisation and have shied away from it whenever I could. This will force me to jump into that pool and own it…just like Betty did!
I want to mainly focus on her original compositions but she was also a master arranger and I will probably include one or two standards that she arranged. She was such a unique improviser…I’m going to transcribe some of her solos (syllables and all!) to see if I can get inside of her style and be able to sing solos that are Betty Carter-inspired but are still my own. Will definitely keep you posted as this thing is unfolding!