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Betty Carter by John Gabree

Jazz is alive and, well, living in a lot of little clubs about town. With a few well-known, long-established and expensive exceptions, jazz spots tend to be funkily appointed, situated in commercial, industrial or slum neighborhoods, relatively cheap and, invariably, crowded. On a good night, they are hot, noisy, and the best entertainment buy around.

One of the most successful is the Needle's Eye in the heart of the meat district, a lunch counter-sized joint crammed into a tiny building on Ninth Avenue where Little West 12th and Gansevoort Streets come together. Proprietressed by Sue Yellin, a friendly medium-sized brunette who looks more like a Radcliff graduate student than the owner-operator of a Village dive, the club is a narrow room with a bar down one side and a row of tiny tables and chairs down the other. Out back is the kitchen -- big black gas stoves and steel sinks --that is every jazz club's green room. A narrow stair leads to the upstairs "dining room." If everybody holds in their tums, about 50 fans can be shoehorned in downstairs and another 50 can sit more comfortably on the second floor.

Monday week we stopped by the Needle's Eye to find patrons spilling out into the street. The occasion was a one-night-stand by Betty Carter, a legendary jazz singer, and her trio. In jazz, you're a living legend if you're pretty famous and not very rich. Betty Carter suffers the further indignity of being a musician's musician, which means she is dug most fervently by other jazzmakers. The high point of her career so far, at least that for which she is most widely known, is an album she made with Ray Charles almost a decade ago. The genius of soul, as he then was, paid her the tribute of equal billing on what has been the only tandem album of his career.

If it isn't hard to find musicians who dig Betty Carter, Monday night it wasn't hard to find fans either. The Needle's Eye's dining room was closed because of problems with the sound system, but downstairs they were four-deep at the bar and there wasn't an empty chair anywhere. The stage, visible from any part of the room with only a little craning, is on the shelf in the front window, which would look busy even if the club were the candy store it seems designed to be, with a few comic books and a box of pink Spalding Hi-Bounce balls.

Even before the singer joined them in the showcase, the trio, led by Danny Mixon on piano, looked like they were afraid to move. Mixon's box was almost literally pocket-sized, bassist Stafford James was jammed up against the window trying to leave space in front of the mic, and drummer Chris Barbaro looked like he didn't have room to move his arms. They weren't afraid to play, though, and the first half of the show featured three long interesting explorations, mostly featuring Mixon's angular playing (the pianist would seem to have a future not only because of his playing, which is solid, but because of the way he exploits his card-shark good looks with Cisco Kid duds; a nice act).

Then Betty Carter squeezed onto the stage. She is a solidly built woman of middling height, in her thirties. Her skin is the color of cafe-au-lait and she has one of the loveliest faces in creation, a wide warm mouth topped by an amazingly expressive nose. It's her nose that does most of the acting as she works out the meanings in her songs. Only her eyes are reserved, hinting at the pain that must go with years of unrecognized, unrewarded greatness. When she entered the bar she was wearing very attractive street clothes, capped by the modified Big Apple that is her trademark. Strangely, she changed into a modified African robe, with matching Big Apple that while beautiful was a lot less effective than her regular garb. This is a performer whose performances need no costuming to make them interesting.

It's her voice, of course, that's unforgettable. Even in conversation, talking about the problems that come with being a black performer (let alone a black woman performer), her voice is like an instrument. On stage she uses it like one, building long, improvised lines of nonsense syllables and sounds off the melodies. Her voice has the qualities of instruments, sometimes vibrating effortlessly like a Hammond organ, sometimes forced and windy like a reed with the whisper of breath behind it.

Her repertoire is broad. During one set Monday, she ranged through standards like "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "I Could Write a Book," did some originals like a wonderful new tune by Randy Weston which might have been called "Make Love" and wound up with a beautiful composition of her own for a Dorothy Hope Lange poem called "Children's Creed." It was a superb set, exuberant and accomplished, even though one sensed she was cruising at maybe half power, that there was more there waiting for a better occasion to come out.

The reserve in her eyes is mirrored in her conversation. She seemed relieved to talk about her sidemen, whom she admires, and her music, of which she is proud, instead of her personal life. If she has it pretty together, it's because she has been willing to sweat. For instance, like many jazz musicians, she is plagued with record company problems. If they get recorded at all, most jazz players don't make a dime from records. So, like a few others (Randy Weston, Charlie Mingus, the Jazz Composers' Orchestra and, on a different scale, Ray Charles himself), she has started her her own record company, Betcar Productions, with so far one lp featuring herself, available, as she says, "at Goodies and places like that." (1972)

Order Betty Carter Live at the Village Vanguard


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