For three hours they shared music and memories, more than a score of musicians who filled Manhattan's Riverside Church with their own unique tributes to the late jazz diva Betty Carter. The event, earlier this month, brought together many of Carter's friends and followers, who celebrated her life and music with words and song.
Carter, who died September 26 of pancreatic cancer, was born in Flint in 1929. Her musical influence reverberated through the jazz world much as her friends' tributes echoed through the church.
"Her music was like she was: exuberant," Dr. David Lionel Smith of Williams College said near the beginning of the musical memorial. "She had a way of delivering moments of intimate communication amid public performance."
Carter's musical survivors captured her exuberance as they recalled her legacy. Sometimes, as in the case of pianist Barry Harris, the homage was done directly, as he recalled coming of age with her in Detroit.
"Bringing beauty and joy, such was her life," Harris told hundreds gathered in the large sanctuary. Then, with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Harris etched a tender and melodic rendition of "Like Someone in Love," extending the lines in a style reminiscent of Carter's unique vocalizations.
Singer Abbey Lincoln's tribute was more nuanced. She didn't mention Carter's name at all, but invoked the bebop diva with a lovely reading of "Midnight Sun," a song composed by Lionel Hampton; he gave Carter her first professional stint with a band. It was hard not to think of Carter and her approach to a ballad when Lincoln caressed the line, "But after you were gone, there was still some stardust on my sleeve."
That stardust filtered through the air during pianist Cyrus Chestnut's solo on "If I Should Lose You," and was further dispersed when Pevin Everett, one of Carter's many protégés in attendance, recalled his mentor on "I Thought About You."
As tenor saxophonist Don Braden did on his version of "Sophisticated Lady" with pianist Benny Green, Everett found the perfect acoustical spot below the church's dome to cast his sound, and each note gained in orchestral intensity as they floated off to the Gothic belfry and filled every apse.
A quintet led by pianist Bruce Flowers gave one of the most energetic performances with its lively treatment of "B's Blues." Trombonist Andre Heyward was particularly assertive in his several choruses, setting the stage for tenor saxophonist Mark Shim's sizzling but controlled impressions. The source of the steam were bassist Jennifer Vincent and drummer Eric Hardland, whose swift, feathery touch was matched earlier in the afternoon by Max Roach and his exquisite manipulations on cymbals and Lewis Nash with brushes.
Heyward, Shim, Flowers, and Hardland are alumni of Carter's veritable jazz academy, and so is pianist Danny Mixon, who in a medley of tunes conjured the likes of Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk. With his head bobbing, feet stomping and hands darting all over the keyboard, Mixon tossed off fragments of popular tunes that roused the crowd and left the other musicians in awe: "There is no way I'm going to follow him," one noted pianist whispered.
In rapid succession there were precious nods to Carter from singer Jean DuShon, who honed her wares in Detroit's jazz cauldron, and pianist Mulgrew Miller and trio (Williams and DeJonette), who told the late lady of bebop "I Remember You."
Pianist John Hicks displayed his awesome technique with his composition "Naima's Love Song," reciting a few lines of the lyrics (which were written by Carter), and tenor saxophonists Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath were harmonically correct as they followed pianist Jacky Terrason's lead, telling Carter "There Will Never Be Another You."
The vocalese tradition of which Carter was the boldest innovator was well represented by Jon Hendricks, the Reed Sisters and Leon Thomas, whose unity of scat and yodeling is a miracle of the human voice. Members of Carter's family, including her sons Myles and Kagle Redding, eased forward in their pews as this feat was accomplished.
The Rev. James Forbes, Riverside Church's minister, was so moved by the parade of musicians, especially the singers, that he confessed that he was a jazz preacher.
"Folks say I'm always improvising and sometimes during my sermons it sounds like I'm scatting," he said to laughter and applause.
Even those who couldn't attend paid tribute. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer made a proclamation for Carter, and President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton sent a letter which was read at the memorial. "She shared her love of jazz with a new generation of musicians," they wrote.
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