New York — `WHAT is jazz?'' someone asked veteran jazz singer Betty Carter. ``If you come to see me, you'll find out! Ha ha ha ha ha!''
Ms. Carter has been singing for more than four decades - most of that time, except for stints with Lionel Hampton's band and Ray Charles, without much recognition. When rock came in and jazz ``died'' in the '60s, Carter had already moved from her native Detroit to New York City, and was singing in ``small dives. In other words, I was `paying my dues.''' But in 1969 she started her own record label, Betcar - something rarely done in those days, especially by a woman.
While Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday were cracking the charts on major labels, the feisty Carter hung in there, faithful to her own artistic vision. Now, after all those years, she has finally signed with a major label: Polygram. She's put out a new album, ``Look What I Got!'' - which has been No. 1 on the jazz charts for four weeks now - and is getting ready to reissue all of her Betcar catalog.
Continuing her definition of jazz, Carter says, ``I don't think you need to define it. People are not crazy. When they come to see it, they'll know it. I don't think we have to say anything at all about it.''
Her music speaks for itself. Betty Carter has always been quite the musical maverick. Stylistically she's an adventurer, taking outrageous liberties with both melody and rhythm, even with the most tried and true of the old chestnuts: songs like ``You're a Sweetheart,'' or ``Seems Like Old Times.''
Carter has watched jazz survive a lot of musical trends, but she feels the one that did the most damage was the avant-garde, or so-called ``free,'' jazz that started in the 1960s and continues in some circles today.
``Free music didn't teach the musicians how to become musicians. Free is easy; you don't have to go to school to learn how to do that. But to play together, to learn how to read notes, is much more difficult.''
Also, as far as Carter is concerned, that stuff just isn't jazz, even though it's often played by black musicians.
``It was the white audience who encouraged them to continue to play like that. If you take that same free group to a black audience, we'd shoot 'em. You couldn't take that kind of music to Harlem and call it jazz....
``I'm worried about my culture. I started worrying about it as soon as the avant-garde came in, because no longer was the essence that we need in jazz there: the heartbeat, the tempo - that's black.''
But Betty Carter knows that there are quite a few young musicians out there - black and white - who want to play the jazz of her generation.
``We've got Wynton Marsalis, who's telling everybody to learn, get educated ... learn, learn, learn! Which is good, and I'm very happy he's out there. And he's young, and there are a lot of young musicians out there who are looking up to him.''
Then there are Carter's own backup musicians. She always works with young players, because, she says, ``I've tried to stay up, to keep my music on top of it by having a young feeling behind me; I think that helps bring in more young listeners. I think if I had three guys behind me as old as I am, we'd be in a lot of trouble! It's not only that: I want the audience to see young players playing music that they thought was dated, old-fashioned.''
For her sidemen, working with Carter is like being in school - and a lot more. Drummer Kenny Washington, who played in Carter's band from 1978 to 1980, describes it as ``one of the most interesting gigs I've had.''
``With a lot of singers you could sit up there and almost fall asleep, but you have to watch Betty all the time,'' he says. ``She has it completely in her mind what she wants.'' But, he adds, ``she doesn't say you do it my way or not at all. She thrives on suggestions. She wants you to speak what you feel and think. The minute you don't have any ideas and suggestions, you're gone.''
Mr. Washington also admires Carter's vitality as a musician - the way she keeps updating her material.
``She keeps it interesting. I've been out of her band for eight years; still, I make it a point to go and check her out, because I know something new is going to be happening.''
Carter's thick skin got her through a lot of hard years in the music business - not only professionally, but personally. Her first baby was only two weeks old when she went on the road with Ray Charles, and she was working a club in Philadelphia when her second baby was due. Motherhood has been a high spot for her. ``I stayed in the hospital just three days. I had so much fun - I smiled the whole time.''
As far as the future is concerned, Betty Carter has no worries about her music carrying her forward.
``There are so many musicians who have had a hit record in the last 20 years and you can't find them today. I - and a lot of other people - have been able to live in jazz. The real jazz people out here, we've been able to survive all these 30 or 40 years. Count Basie was working when he died at 75, and Duke Ellington. Sarah and Ella and the rest of us are going to be working until it's all over for us. We're going to be happy, doing what we want to do.''