In Conversation with William Bauer

Molly Sheridan: Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about what first drew you to this kind of scholarship on Betty Carter?

William Bauer: I went to hear her perform in 1978 and she just blew me away. She was such a consummate performer and she brought all the elements of musical performance together–the way she moved on stage, the way she commanded the audience’s attention, the way she commanded her trio’s attention. She was really a complete musician and that left a deep impression on me. Then a few years later I got a recording of hers from 1970, her first record on her own label, and the sound of it just kind of stayed in my ears. So when I started my doctoral work and I was thinking about a topic for my Ph.D dissertation, writing about her came to mind. I did a paper about one of the songs that she did on the 1970 recording and compared her approach to the approach Billie Holiday uses, that was on a song called “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and that was kind of the prototype for the dissertation. It brought in elements of the phonetic analysis I use. And also as I started preparing for my interview with Betty, it became clear to me that this was a remarkable person and a remarkable musician whose work had largely been neglected. She has only 20 commercial recordings to her name out of a 50-year career, and I was stunned to discover that. And there are other reasons. It turns out that Betty was partly responsible for that but I felt that she was under-recognized. When I was able to get a book contract for the research that I’d done I was really thrilled because it was giving me an opportunity to get the word out about her and her work.

Molly Sheridan: Yeah, I noticed that you did one-on-one interviews with her. What was your personal impression of her?

William Bauer: Tough lady, oh yeah. Tough, but also very warm at the same time, a bundle of energy, strong opinions, passionate, and also reserved on a certain level. So just very complex, you know, very rich and not easy to read.

Molly Sheridan: What were some of her strong opinions?

William Bauer: Well, I mean pretty much all of her opinions were strong, but just to give you an example, we were talking about Miles Davis and I mentioned something about his turning his back to the audience and how I thought that was sort of a gesture of disregard–that he didn’t want to stoop to being an entertainer. And she really rose to his defense and said that he wasn’t doing that he was just turning to interact with his other musicians, and I just thought that was interesting because she’s actually attacked Miles on other issues–his use of fusion and rock elements in his music. She’s gone on the record saying that he sold out and that he didn’t need to do that. Linda Prince wrote an article [for Down Beat] called “Bebopper Breathes Fire,” which really kind of captures this image of Betty reacting to Miles and so much else that was going on at the time. The thing is, she had a really tough time from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, so if you read interviews with her from that time you see them growing increasingly vitriolic and bitter about her lost opportunities. I think that the tone of the interviews is understandable given her life circumstances. Then after 1987 when she signed with Verve and ’89 when she won the Grammy award, the whole tone of her interviews is quite different and so I think a researcher has to keep that element in mind. You can’t just look at a life monolithically and not take into account the life circumstances that influence where an artist is in that life.

Molly Sheridan: Right. Do you think it was more society and the environment that she was working in that caused a lot of that or was it her personally?

William Bauer: What I try to get across in the book by laying out the whole picture is to make it clear that it was both at work at the same time, that really in all of our lives we have historical circumstances that we’re facing and then we have our own character that we bring to those circumstances. So here was Betty, a woman who was extremely willful and really defiant in many areas of her life, going right back to her relationship with her mother and unwilling to compromise about so much because she so strongly believed in her vision of what was to be. And then of course encountering this music industry that’s dominated by white men who expect a woman to basically go along with what they tell her to do because they know what’s best. They were also interested in marketing the music and selling it and making money from it, and so many artists are seduced by that because that’s how they make money too, but Betty was unwilling to be drawn into that whole discussion because she had made a decision that her dedication to the bebop ideal was paramount. And I believe that’s why she’s so deeply respected by the musicians.

Molly Sheridan: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about her as a composer, and what place you think her original compositions will have in her legacy?

William Bauer: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I would say that one thing that needs to be taken into account is that we look at composition as a particular kind of activity, as somebody sitting down with manuscript paper and notating music that they’re hearing in their imaginations. And I think there’s a cultural bias there. That plays out in the jazz world, for example, because people like Ellington and Mingus and Monk, I think are viewed in a special light because they held positions as composers as well as improvisers. So one thing I guess I’m hoping to do in the book as well, although this is really subliminal almost, is to get people to think about what it means to be a composer in an African American sense of the word and to expand the definition of that term to include arranging, because some of Betty Carter’s arrangements are so far afield from the original raw materials that she’s working with that she’s working in quite a compositional way. I think this can also be looked at in light of the western tradition because you have Josquin Des Pres, for example, writing masses based on chant melodies, and in some ways you can look at those as arrangements–he’s taking a chant and creating an arrangements so that people can hear the chant tune in a particular way–but he’s bringing so much of himself to it that a shift has taken place away from the chant and towards Josquin himself. I would say the same happened with Betty. The problem is that she was doing this with pop tunes that people kind of wanted to hum along with. So here again she’s challenging people’s preconceptions and making it hard for them, you know. You have to work to follow her were she’s going to go. So in answer to you question, I think that her legacy is going to become clearer to us over time. I think as we move away from the old kind of crooner mentality about singers, perhaps we’ll be able to listen to what she’s done and not compare it so much to the original tune. Instead we’ll just hear her arrangements/improvisations as part of her creative legacy. That being said I think that her compositions are very interesting and if I could have I would have gone even more deeply into that in the book. But I felt that what I really wanted to do is look at specific tunes as she evolved her concept of them over time. So for example the 1972 album that she did on her own label, The Betty Carter Album, has a lot of original material that she worked on with the help of Danny Mixon and there were just some really interesting songs, really interesting ways of thinking about her musical materials. And then the 1979 album, The Audience with Betty Carter, also has just wonderful re-shapings of ideas and approaches to the vocal art moving from recitative sort of singing to arioso into full fledged tunes. There’s one composition of hers that I don’t transcribe but I discuss in great depth, it’s called “Dropping Things,” and I think this tune gives you some window into the incredible musical imagination that she had and the incredible means that she had musically, because she’s working with a kind of modal concept, she’s not working in a straight ahead meter, and she’s also doing something with the musicians. The tune is sort of an A-A-B-A tune, but it’s not a 32-bar form, and the second time that she sings the A section, the bass player and the drummer kind of go crazy underneath her. They’re doing something totally different tempo-wise than what she and pianist are doing. And she described this rhythmic thing that she was experimenting with at the time as the wave. While I never really had the chance to ask her about this particular moment, I have a sense that that was one example of what she was trying to do. And she was able to have this disjunction, this rhythmic disjunction, because of the tune’s modal characteristic. It freed the musicians up. And most singers would just flip out if the bass player and drummer tried anything like that underneath her, but here’s Betty just riding the crest of the wave. (laughs) I love it.

Molly Sheridan: Do you think a lot of this was just her innate talent or did she have a mentor or work closely with the musicians themselves, because she didn’t have a lot of formal training. Is seems like she was working mainly off her experience as a performer?

William Bauer: Well, there again I think you have to look at the jazz world as being different than the European classical world. During the time that Betty was growing up, getting formal training in jazz was non-existent, and so she did have remarkable mentoring. She was able to hang out with a lot of the bebop players coming out in the Detroit scene, people like Barry Harris, who I think even then was beginning to get a reputation for being something of a professor and of course now he has a huge reputation in that area, just sharing his wisdom and his insight about jazz. Tommy Flanagan was there, players that we don’t even know about now like Leon Rice and Ted Sheely. So there was a sense of being part of a learning community and yet it was unspoken. There wasn’t a huge direct emphasis placed on that so it happened very organically. And then when she got into Lionel Hampton‘s band, she was the seat partner of Bobby Platter. Bobby was a great alto player and an arranger and composer himself. He taught Betty a lot about arranging–he taught her how to write out parts, he taught her how to score things without having to play them on a piano. She had received some piano training earlier. She didn’t get very far in terms of her proficiency, but she could play chords, she could comp for herself in a basic kind of way. So I would say that she had some innate skills but she was a worker. She worked incredibly hard at learning about music theory and arranging and composing, and she put all of those pieces together in her own inimitable way.

Molly Sheridan: This month, we’re asking several women jazz composers if they feel that their gender has influenced their music in any way. How do you think she might have answered that question?

William Bauer: Betty would probably say it has nothing to do with it. I think Betty wanted to operate in the world as though gender didn’t matter and as though race didn’t matter, that none of those factors should limit anyone’s opportunities, and that none of those factors should be used to determine the merits of somebody’s work. So I don’t think she would want her work to be heard as an expression of her womanhood. That’s my gut sense. She certainly didn’t think of herself as a feminist when feminism came in early on. But I think as the message of feminism sank in she started to realize that she had been doing feminism all her life. Later on in an interview with Graham Locke, she refers to her aggressiveness and she puts it in the context of a woman being allowed to be aggressive now. That she feels maybe more permission from society to be who she is. That being said, I think there are elements in her lyrics that probably reveal elements of her experience as a woman in the world. And I’m trying to think of a particular example, maybe her song “Thirty Years,” which looks at divorce, or an impending divorce, from the perspective of the woman who’s about to be left. It would be hard for me to imagine a man writing those lyrics.

Molly Sheridan: As you were doing the research for this book, I’m sure that you came across a lot of the history of women’s roles in jazz in general. Do you think there’s been enough documentation of their role in this world in terms of putting it down for posterity?

William Bauer: Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I guess I would have to skirt the question just by virtue of the fact that it seems to be kind of judging in a way and I generally try not to take that approach to history. What I would rather do is kind of turn the question around and say ‘Why hasn’t there been more documentation of women’s activity in jazz?’ Because then when we start to get to the question of why, then we can look to the future and see if we can’t improve the circumstances if they need to be improved. So there are definite reasons why women’s roles have not been very well documented and I think those reasons need to be brought out, but I also think that the sheer fact of women’s neglect in jazz history is a critical statement that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Molly Sheridan: Why do you feel women have been neglected?

William Bauer: Whew! Well that’s really a topic for a whole other interview by itself. That’s a huge, huge question. I don’t know if it comes across in the book. I just did a book signing in Detroit and Linda Yohn, who is the radio announcer for WEMU, said that she really appreciated the passages in which I wrote about Betty Carter’s apparel. She said, ‘I’m sure all the women who read your book will really appreciate that too.’ And I said to her that I really wanted as much as possible to try and enter into Betty Carter’s frame of reference and clearly her dress was very important to her, so for me to neglect writing about that I think would have been a serious omission as a scholar. So, I guess maybe that’s an indirect answer to you question. I think that it’s often hard for men to enter into women’s perspectives. And because men have typically been empowered by the institutions they’ve designed to write the histories, that perspective has not found a voice. But I think that as more and more women get involved in writing the histories, they’ll be able to reflect that perspective more effectively. I would like to think that as men become more enlightened about that perspective they too will be able to enter that frame of reference and view history and their lives from it.