This interview was conducted in Betty Carter’s Brooklyn home on May 13, 1993. Carter’s speech has many stops and starts, and I edited out some stranded phrases as well as a few “you know”s. I almost removed my most embarrassing questions, but withstood the temptation.
Evan Spring: So first, who’s performing with you this Saturday?
Betty Carter: Okay, Cyrus Chestnut’s on piano, Chris Thomas is on bass, and Clarence Penn is on drums.
ES: And your histories going back with these three musicians?
BC: History? Oh, well, they’re young, much younger, and I’ve only had Cyrus and Clarence about two years. It’ll be three years I think in September. And Chris Thomas is the youngest, it’s about six months.
ES: So how’s the turnover in your groups been recently, is it more rapid than –
BC: About three years, about three years is about my average. I’ll probably be looking for two new musicians after the end of this year.
ES: This is a fairly large hall in Tarrytown. How do you balance the large halls and playing in clubs, do you have any preferences in that matter?
BS: If the sound is good, it really doesn’t make any difference. The most important thing is that the audience hears everything, all the little nuances that you might get when you’re dealing in a club, you know. It’s very difficult for the audience to see your eyes and nose and mouth when you’re dealing with a large audience in large spaces. But if they can hear you well, that’s the priority, I think. So that’s important to me, that they hear me.
ES: And how about playing with trio, do you often bring on a saxophonist or trumpeter?
BC: Not often. It’s usually been trio. I’m thinking about doing that when I do the JVC [Jazz Festival] this year. I’m thinking about having some extra musicians, with trumpet and saxophone.
ES: Does that change the whole dynamic of the concert, if there’s a saxophonist, is it more of a competing voice?
BC: It’s not competing, it’s just, it adds something to it. And it makes it different, especially if people have been seeing you as a vocalist with a trio all the time. If you decide to bring in a horn player, it’s another look for people.
ES: Before we get into too many specifics of your style and so on, maybe you could just give us a general idea how you’re dividing your time, what your summer plans are, have you recorded a new record for Verve, anything like that.
BC: I’m thinking about a new record for Verve, I’ve got something in mind. And that should come off before September. I’m dividing my time between work and taking care of the house for the summer, and being as creative as I can, trying to be as creative as I can. Trying to find new things to do, musically.
ES: I’d like to start things out with sort of a general question. This goes back I think 21 years to an interview that you did with Arthur Taylor in the book Notes and Tones, which incidentally is being reissued.
BC: It’s always being reissued, everything is being reissued, yeah.
ES: You said back then – I’m quoting, now, “After me there are no more jazz singers. What I mean is there’s nobody scaring me to death. No young woman is giving me any trouble when it comes to singing jazz. I’m not even worried about it and that’s a shame. It’s sad that there’s nobody stepping on my heels.” And you go on to explain that further. But how would you amend that nowadays?
BC: I’m not worried [laughter]. There’s a real good reason for that, too. It’s because, don’t forget, we’ve gone through a period of media where jazz singers was not the vogue, you know. And record companies didn’t allow these singers who had the potential to become a jazz singer to become a jazz singer. They wanted to develop them and make them into something else, you’re talking about making money. So it didn’t leave a lot of room for a lot of singers to develop their skills as a jazz singer. I have the background, when I was allowed to develop my skill. I’m still allowed to do that because I’m established. So it’s not because it’s not a possibility, it’s just that the environment is just not there to encourage singers to want to become a good jazz singer, to work at it and to be consistent at it. A lot of singers, they may want to be a jazz singer, then they go off and then they do something else. And then it’s very difficult, it’s very difficult for them, it’s a different time, you know.
ES: And yet the 1980s are typecast as being a great opportunity for younger musicians, more rediscovering the classic jazz tradition and so on.
BS: Yeah, and we have. And we have. And that has happened.
ES: Even for singers.
BC: Even for singers. There’s a lot of new singers out there, but when you want to be an individual, when you really want to be you, that your sound is identifiable, you know – that is very, very, very important when you’re dealing with jazz. There are a lot of good singers out there. Great singers, great voices, in tune, pitch and everything, but as far as creativity is concerned, I find that that is the only lacking part, you know. Because they’re still told by record companies what type of songs, and it just seems like most singers today want to sing the same songs, they’re not creative and go out and really dig in and try to find some songs that are really different. They try to find “It’s All Right With Me,” you know. That’s one of the favorites, it seems like [laughter]. Which is terrible, you know, to me, because it means that they listened to another singer who sang it, and when you get five singers to sing that song, then it’s enough already, you know.
ES: Might you care to mention by name any young singers who have caught your attention for some reason or other?
BC: Oh, well there’s, let me see. There’s Vanessa Williams, there’s – um – Jesus! That I didn’t think about. I’m getting to the point where I’m forgetting names that I shouldn’t forget. Cassandra Wilson is another. And right now they’re probably the two identifiable people, I mean I can identify Cassandra, so that’s very important that she continues that trend of her identification, you know, to be unique, to be different, to be herself, it’s very important.
ES: I was at the performance which you gave along with several young musicians in April, I think it was April 17th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And how did that work, is that going to take place every year, is that going to be a continuing thing?
BC: Yes, every year, mm-hm. Jazz Ahead ’95 next year.
ES: And did you actually audition all these young players yourself?
BC: Mm-hm. Did you like it?
ES: Oh, it was wonderful.
BC: Thank you.
ES: It seemed to get a real excited emotional response from the audience as well.
BC: Because it was very loose, it was free, it was very loose, we had fun. I allowed the musicians to be free, to move around, and not be staged and sit in the dressing room waiting to go on and getting nervous, they were cheered on by their fellow musicians. It was just fun, in fact the whole week was fun. And so it led up to the idea of having everybody on the stage at the same time, and anytime anyone wanted to lead they could lead, anytime they wanted to stay they could stay. And anything they wanted to say to the musicians while they were playing. So I had the old and the new, I had some very fresh musicians and then I had some musicians who had some experience, like Gregory Hutchinson and Brian Blade, and my three musicians, and of course Jacky Terrasson. All these musicians had some experience in jazz, you know. The rest of them were pretty much very fresh and very new.
ES: There was something just very exciting about it, and somehow I imagine if this were to happen at the JVC Jazz Festival, if it were headlined as “Young Lions in Jazz,” it might be presented in such a way that it wouldn’t bring out that adventurous quality.
BC: The theater had a lot to do with it, the way the theater is set up. I mean, when you’re in that theater you can look right down on the stage and you can see the activity that’s going on the stage much better than you can see if you were looking straight at the performers. The theater is quite different. The look is very, very important, I really didn’t expect for it to have the response that it did, although I’m very happy about it. ’Cause all the ideas came to me all at once. The idea to do it was presented to me by 651 [Arts], but how I was going to produce it started coming to me – like we were performing on a Saturday, and everything started shoving at me about the end of Thursday night, it started floating in. And Friday [laughter] everything started coming in at me, ideas that I needed to do to make it different. To make it young, you know. Yeah.
ES: I was all the way up on the upper balcony – did you even have a sense of us, all the way up there?
BC: You can’t help it because of the way that place is set up. You look right down on top of us. It’s a great setting, don’t you think?
ES: Oh yeah.
BC: It’s a great setting, you look right down on top of the stage and you can see that whole large stage and all in back where the guys were sitting and standing and walking around and talking and chatting and everything. And you could see that whole thing moving around. It was really like a theater, like a musical in a sense, to me. I mean, I could see that being something. Afterwards I said to myself, “My, this is almost like a musical.” I mean I would love to have something like that on Broadway. You know, that kind of atmosphere on Broadway for jazz, which has never been done before, you know. It would be a real kick for Broadway to get a taste of what it can really be to have some spirited young kids playing this music. I think they could use it.
ES: Yeah. Hard to imagine, though.
BC: I know, I know. I’m dreaming, but I do that all the time.
ES: I think it’s commonly said that next to Art Blakey’s group, your group is always the best vehicle for young talent to gain exposure, and turning out great musicians, and of course now Blakey’s gone. And do you see yourself sort of alone in nurturing younger talent, do you think that the system of apprenticeship is breaking down, there’s not as many chances for younger players to learn from older players?
BC: That’s very true, I wish a lot of older players would hire younger players, but they feel that their job is in jeopardy anyway [laughter]. All the players who are worried about their jobs, you know, and they don’t want to really encourage young players at the expense of losing their gigs. Which is not the way it’s supposed to go down – I mean the priority is the music, you know. The priority is the music, sustaining the music for years and years and years and years, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but a lot of musicians are worried about themselves instead, and so they won’t deal with dealing with young players.
ES: I once saw you perform at Fat Tuesday’s, I believe. And your bass player took a solo, and it was at a very fast tempo. And it was a walking solo, and you could tell he was straining a little bit to keep the beat, and he actually fell slightly behind, and you went up to him and you started snapping your fingers to the beat –
BC: Putting him back on top, yeah.
ES: Yeah, exactly. And I think maybe some people in the audience might have even been a little bit embarrassed because he was being corrected in public. Do you consider yourself a tough taskmaster as a bandleader?
BC: I don’t think anybody was embarrassed, they know that happens all the time. They felt it themselves. One thing you can understand, people that come to these jazz clubs in New York are not dumb, not stupid, and not fickle. They know when the time drops. They know when it’s getting faster, they can feel it. So don’t underestimate the audience, for sure. But what they saw me do was to make sure that the musician stayed where he was supposed to be. That’s learning, that’s all them getting together, what is he there for? He’s younger than I am, I know more than he does, you know. So I might as well keep him up so he’ll understand it’s about staying in time. It’s training, it’s really on-the-job training that he’s getting, you know. So it’s important.
ES: If there were a young pianist who’s played with both Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and your group, let’s say Benny Green –
BC: Mulgrew Miller.
ES: – Mulgrew Miller –
BC: Stephen Scott.
ES: Would they find the arrangements in your group to be a bit looser, and more flexibility in some ways?
BC: I think you’d have to ask them that. What I give them probably more than Art would be a lot more ballads. And I might give them a lot more three-quarter time. I don’t know about fast tempos ’cause Art at one time could play fast, you know. You would have to ask these young players like Benny Green what they received different. It was two different things – you’re talking about a band, and you’re talking about a singer. But still, the skill that they had to use for both of us was close, closely related.
ES: There was one solo at that BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] concert [Jazz Ahead]I think that really had everyone sort of flabbergasted, it was Marcus Printup, I believe, on “The Nearness of You,” it was a ballad.
ES: And it seemed to get an incredible response, and then afterwards, you went back, and all the musicians were hugging him –
BC: Hugging him, carrying on. Was that a wonderful sight?
BC: Yeah, yeah, it was great, it was really great. Yeah, yeah. That’s what people need to see, I mean instead of thinking that what we have here, this thing called jazz, is so intellectual that we just can’t have any fun, you know. But it is a fun art form, it really is. And it’s encouraging when you can grab somebody and hug him, and right in public when he’s finished. That makes him feel so good, he feels so wonderful after that, he’ll think about it for days. And that’s very important for him and for his ego, you know. Oh, that was a great little thing, wasn’t it wonderful? And we both hit that note on the end? Oh man! I enjoyed that too because it was so spontaneous, all of that was spontaneous, you know, ’cause at that last minute I had mentioned the fact that I wanted the two drummers to start it, you know, when I realized I had these two giant drummers, I said “My goodness, what am I going to do with these kids, I might as well open up, have an overture,” you know. And it was the greatest thing. I’m thrilled, I’m glad I got it on tape.
ES: What do you think to yourself when your hear the younger generation being stereotyped as all conservative and over-schooled and all sounding like John Coltrane and all wearing suits, and so on?
BC: Aww, the suits got nothing to do with the ability to play. That I don’t care anything about. I don’t want everybody to sound like John Coltrane, I really want them to create and find themselves. I don’t think we had a player on the stage that sounded like John Coltrane, thank goodness. Because this music is supposed to breathe individualism, this is what jazz is really all about. There’s only one John Coltrane, and if a musician thinks that he can become another John Coltrane, or play like John Coltrane and be successful, he’s making a big mistake, yeah.
ES: Do you think there are commercial pressures – some say that only 18-year-olds in suits playing very traditional bebop are going to get major label record contracts. Do you think there’s some truth to that?
BC: Only tradition, in suits? Like what, like for instance, what?
ES: They’ll be, say, a young guy, he’s 18, 19, he’ll get signed to Columbia Records, the CD box will just have his picture and won’t list the sidemen on the outside. They’ll be marketing him, you know. And then he’ll be playing very traditionally, he’ll cover a lot of standards because that’s somehow believed that that’s what the market demands. And that it’s taking longer for them to find their own voice.
BC: Well, if you notice on Jazz Ahead, I had everybody write their own stuff too, which I tried to get them to do, to be original in that sense, too. And the suits thing, I really don’t think that has – the more you emphasize suits, that’s when you start to think about it. But the suits didn’t stop that show from being what it was, or stop Marcus Printup from playing a wonderful solo, or stop the musicians from grabbing him when he came off the stage and hugging him. It didn’t have anything to do with suits, it had something to do with what they were playing. Nobody even thought about clothes, you know. So we wanted everybody to be in some sort of, in a tuxedo style, ’cause this is not an experience that they have all the time. I mean they’re in their jeans and everything else all the time, so why not want to dress up? They want to dress up sometimes, you know. It’s us older people that don’t want to dress up [laughter]. The young kids want to dress up and it’s okay, you know, it’s okay. As long as it doesn’t affect their playing, you know, that’s the most important thing.
ES: What has it taught you, being around so many young musicians all the time, what does it do for you?
BC: Keeps me real, real, real young. Keeps me thinking young, keeps my whole attitude in a different phase. I mean, I’m really very happy that I can have this kind of rapport with young players, and that they want me to help them. They come to me for advice, and they know that I will try to encourage them and talk to them and tell them things that a lot of musicians won’t even tell them. That’s the one thing that I will do, I will say to them what it is that they’re lacking and a lot of musicians really won’t do it. They just don’t communicate with each other that way. Eventually they’ll get it, but they don’t say anything to anyone. It’s like, somebody was telling me that my bass player, the one who started with the drum set, how great he sounded. And he had been with some musicians before, and he never had sounded like that before. I said, “Well the only reason why he sounds like he does now is because he’s working, and working helps you get better.” The more you work you get better. And I talk to him, and I tell him things that you probably never said to him before. You just didn’t use him and didn’t think that he was going to get any better. But I knew that he had to get better because he loved what he was doing, and you know, that was important. He loved that first. And now it was up to someone to tell him, do things that he had to correct and improve on.
ES: Do you find yourself having to give a lot of career counseling to young musicians, who might not realize how difficult it is to make it as a jazz musician?
BC: Oh, yeah. Now it’s really crazy because a lot of them are encouraged by the environment out here for them to record and get better, so they really want to know about themselves. And what to do.
ES: Also at the BAM concert, right when everyone took the stage, there was a woman behind me, and the first thing she said – she wasn’t even being critical, necessarily, but she said, “Ah, there’s not a single woman instrumentalist there.”
ES: So that might have struck some people –
BC: It did. I had a few people comment, make comment about that. I really tried to search for some females to introduce. And that was very difficult. They, for some reason or other, they gave me really much more problems than I thought I’d ever get from females before [laughter]. I never thought I would ever get those kind of problems from female musicians, but I really did, you know. Because there are some musicians out here already who are doing fine, you know, a lot of female musicians who are doing great. So it’s not about them. I really wanted to find someone fresh and someone that no one had heard of before. And I reached out and I got some answers back that really weren’t what I was looking for, you know. So it was a little difficult. I’m hoping that next year I can improve on that and we’ll have some singers even, and some female instrumentalists, I’m hoping. Next year.
ES: One thing that also struck me in this interview – this was from 21 years ago with Arthur Taylor – was your concern that jazz was losing a broad black audience. And do you still have those concerns?
BC: Even more so. It was beginning to happen then – I knew that it was going to happen because of the kind of music that was being played. It had to happen. There was no way black people were going to enjoy music that didn’t have some rhythm to it. The crazy thing about it, I couldn’t understand how come the musicians who played this non-rhythm music couldn’t understand that. I mean that’s our background, that’s our base, that’s our everything. If you’ve got some time going for you, we’ll enjoy anything that you come up with, but that music at that particular time, it was no, no rhythm at all. Just musicians flailing away, and playing away, calling it “free jazz” and black people were escaping. Not only escaping, it alienated them and women. Women were escaping. So we lost a lot of women and we lost just practically all of the black people. We’re having a hard time trying to get black people back now. And it’s very difficult. Our audiences are still, majority of them are still white, you know. And the music that the radio stations, the black radio stations, they don’t play jazz on it, you know. The black newspapers do not support this music. It’s very, very, very, very difficult right now. And now with television like it is, we are really losing them, because we’re not visual, and everybody knows that that’s the way it’s gotta go in 2000. And I can’t for the life of me understand why the powers-that-be don’t get on the ball and deal with jazz as a visual part of the music. You know, it can be visual. It can come up with some creative ideas for it, you know, but nobody’s done so. And it’s crazy because there’s no vision, they’re not looking ahead.
ES: Max Roach, I believe, is starting something called the Max Roach School of the Arts, after he got that MacArthur [Foundation] grant, a lot of money, and he was going to start a center where they would send jazz musicians to the public schools in the inner city. He grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, so areas like that. Do you think maybe we need more work along those lines, teaching in public schools and so on?
BC: Well I tried that, to get that idea across, back in 1964 [laughter]. And that was before it got crazy, I was trying to stop it from getting crazy. You know I had this intuition that something was going to happen if we didn’t get it into the schools at that particular time, and I meant into the grade schools – we were going to lose ’em, we were going to stop the momentum. Not only did I want to get it in the public schools in New York City, I also wanted to get it into the black colleges that they had based down South, because I wanted to make sure that this music wasn’t lost with the black community. I got absolutely nowhere. The system here right now could be very important to sustaining this music if we got it into the system. And that is very difficult to do, you’ve got to really have some clout to get into the system, you know. But it should be from kindergarten on, because these kids today look at television. They know everything, you know. But in school they should hear some other kind of music. They’re going to hear rap and everything else when they come home, so at least in school they will have experienced something else, you know. It should happen. How is Max doing anyway, do you know, is it happening?
ES: I think it’s going to start perhaps next year. It’s still in the planning stages, and I think it has a whole board of directors, so it’s got to take some organization.
BC: Well I wish him luck, because it’s important.
ES: How do you feel about the way jazz is treated in the mainstream press, and how has the press treated you, do you have any gripes about that?
BC: The press has been off-and-on on me, I guess, I don’t know. I really don’t know how the press treats me, I don’t read the stuff. I’m glad I don’t, you know. But I haven’t had any problems as far as when I go to work in New York, and I’ve always worked, so the press hasn’t hurt me in any kind of way. Now as far as jazz is concerned, I mean I really can’t complain, ’cause this year I had a lot of press, but it was because I was doing some very interesting things, you know, and so I got the press. So if you’re doing interesting things, if you create something, they can hardly ignore you because they’ve got certain rules. In other words, if you’re covered in the [New York] Times once a year, you can’t be covered twice, that kind of rule, you know. But I think I escaped that rule this year, I think I got a little spread in the Times twice [laughter]. I think I got the Valentine’s Day thing at Lincoln Center and also Peter Watrous did a story on me for Jazz Ahead. So I think I got some press in the Times. I think it really was three times this year, because I was doing interesting things. And that’s what you have to do, you know, so they can’t ignore you. They may want to, but they can’t.
ES: On a totally different subject now, I have a couple of stylistic questions. One is how you respond to the generalization that you’ve been more influenced by instrumentalists than singers. Do you think that’s true?
BC: Oh, that’s true, that’s true. Yeah. Mm-hm.
ES: I think I remember Cassandra Wilson saying that she called her group the Cassandra Wilson Quartet, I think, because she considered herself one of the instrumentalists.
BC: Well I don’t consider myself an instrument, I mean like a metal instrument, because I’m singing. It’s not that Cassandra – I guess she feels that she’s an instrument. That’s the way she feels about herself, you know. I don’t try to compete with the horn players or anything like that. That’s dangerous as far as I’m concerned, you know. But I have a lot of respect for horn players, and I try not to deal with their thing. I’m influenced by them in the sense that I listen to more of them than I do of singers, because I really don’t want to even think about me singing a song like a singer. But I’m not going to inundate myself with one horn player all the time either, you know, so that that stuff will rub off on me too. Because when I improvise, the improvising comes from me, it really doesn’t sound like any horn player solo or anything like that. That I know.
ES: Do you ever practice by yourself in the way that an instrumentalist might practice his horn?
BC: Well I think everybody does, when you’re in the music, you have to practice. You have to sing in the house and in the tub and in the bathroom and with the piano. I think most people who play music have to practice, and most of the time they’re probably doing it by themselves.
ES: I’m not that good at analyzing the music technically –
BC: Don’t. Don’t start. Don’t even start. There’s nothing to do with it. But ask me the question, I want to hear what it is.
ES: Okay, there’s one – it’s about how you don’t hit a note exactly on the note, it’s how you bend tones and play – I guess, using Ornette Coleman terminology, it would be microtones. And just how that evolved – like were you the first person to be hitting those? I think it takes some adjustment when people first hear you to hear the harmony, their ears need some developing to hear that. And just how that evolved, how you’ve learned to hit those.
BC: What notes? I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it technically. I just do what I do and it comes out the way it comes out. So I never really thought about it technically. You know, that’s another thing that has turned a lot of people off with this music, it’s because most people thought that you had to be an intellectual, or you had to understand it intellectual, you know? And I know that at BAM, the average person at BAM could have come there to catch that concert and understood exactly what jazz is all about. Without dealing with it technically. Somebody who walked off the street, you know, who didn’t know a thing about jazz, would understand it. I mean we didn’t have to explain anything. “Well, we bent a little note here, and we harmonized here, and we did this here…” No.
ES: At what point in your career did you start performing a lot of your own material, or primarily your own material, and at the time, how new was it? Was it considered revolutionary that as a singer you weren’t interpreting standards, but playing your own material?
BC: Well, I didn’t start out to be a composer, I was doing standards from the very beginning. And I wrote my first song, which was “I Can’t Help It,” in 1957. And then I wrote my second one, which was “Open the Door,” somewhere in the 60s. So I’m still not a composer, but I’ve written about 22 songs so far, which is, you know, small compared to a lot of people who have written more songs than I have. But I’m not a songwriter like I sit down, wake up one day and say, “I’m going to write me a song today,” that’s not the way I do it. Or I can’t do it that way, anyway. When my song comes, it just comes. Everything that’s ever happened to me just shows up, you know. Really.
ES: Although in the 70s when you were making your records on your own label, it’s hard to think of a parallel, another singer performing so much of their own material.
BC: Well, I just had these songs, so I might as well go ahead and record them, no one else was going to do it. So I had to do it myself.
ES: A couple particular questions, one is, I’ve always wondered whether you were influenced by Sonny Rollins.
ES: No, not at all?
BC: No, no. I like Sonny Rollins, but – ’cause of what, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”? Or “Wagon Wheels” or something like that? I did pick a song because he did it, it was “Wagon Wheels.” I did do that. But it’s difficult for me to say that I’m influenced by them when you don’t hear them all the time. I love Sonny Rollins, and I listen to his wonderful stuff, but just like he probably never listens to me – I mean, every now and then I hear him, he probably hears me every now and then, you know. And I go to see him, and he probably never has come to see me, ’cause he doesn’t go out to hear anybody anyway, you know, so therefore he’s not going to hear me. But we have respect for each other and we like each other’s work and we work together.
ES: I also wanted to ask you what it was like when you did a performance with Sarah Vaughan in the late 70s, what was that like?
BC: Oh my goodness, yes. Very scary. Top singer, what are you going to do on the stage with the top singer of the world? Yeah, it was scary. I got through it, but I mean, it wasn’t easy.
ES: Well she has complimented you about your music, I’m sure the personal dynamic was good then?
BC: Oh yeah, definitely. We’d been friends for a long time, I mean for a long time. Before I even got started, I met Sarah Vaughan in Detroit, my hometown.
ES: I have a question about your stage presence. People have noted how visually, your visual presence extends the music. And if you were, say, just practicing alone with your trio, would you make as many physical gestures and represent the music in the same way you do as you sing, or is that a way of relating to your audience?
BC: Okay, now let me ask you a question. Okay, suppose I didn’t move at all. Just suppose I just stood there like some kind of pole and sang. Well how would it look to you?
ES: It’s almost impossible to imagine, because even when I hear your records, I visualize the many times I’ve seen you on stage –
BC: Which is what I’m trying to say, there’s certain positions and certain things that you do that’s almost impossible to not move, you know. But it’s something that just happens, it’s not something, I say, “Well, I’m going to get over here now, and I’m going to play…” What I try to do is work to both sides of the stage. I try not to stand in front of the microphone and just stand there. I want to be able to move until I can’t [laughter]. ’Til I get into a position where I can’t move at all. I want to be able to relate to either side of that stage and make sure that side over there gets a piece, and this side, and the middle gets a piece. I really want to be able to move. Now, what I do with my hands and everything is something else. Now you get an opera singer who stands in front of the stage and moves nothing at all, but when they’re doing an opera, then they have to go across the stage, they have to make gestures, they have to do a whole lot of things to tell the story and what the story is all about, you know. So I think that visual – because visual is the key these days – may be very, very important. I didn’t think it was going to be, and I’m going to be doing the Tonight Show in June, on June 8th. And I don’t know how that’s going to come off, but we’ll see, you know. That’s my first biggie, you might say.
ES: Well weren’t you on The Cosby Show or something?
BC: Oh, yeah. Well it’s the second biggie, okay. Yeah, sorry Cosby.
ES: Do you have certain ways of preparing before a performance, physically or mentally?
BC: Just keep the voice together. As long as my voice is in shape, I’m really happy. And I haven’t had any problems with my throat lately, so that’s important.
ES: What’s your range of emotional responses to an audience? Do you ever tune out an audience and just concentrate on what you’re singing?
BC: Oh, goodness, heavens, no. No, no. Oh, how could you do that? I guess some people do, but tune ’em out, ooh, my goodness. That’s terrible. They may tune you out, but I mean, the thing is to try not to let them do that, you know. But no, this is your job, your job is not to tune out the audience, you’re in front of them. They came here to enjoy you, so it’s up to you to please them. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to like you automatically, you know. It’s your job.
ES: Does the studio setting sometimes seem too artificial if there’s no audience there to relate to?
BC: Yes, the studio settings are very sterile, you know, but you got to deal with them. So you go in the studio and you try – close your eyes and hope you see 500 people or something like that. But it’s different than doing it live.
ES: You haven’t come out with a live album for quite a long time.
BC: Yeah, it’s time for me to go back and do a live album, huh? Yeah, I know. I don’t know how I’m going to do it though. I don’t know what I’m going to do for the next one – I know I’m going to do something, but I don’t know what it’s going to be, live or mixture. Maybe a mixture.
ES: Do you ever listen to your old records?
ES: Not even once after you make them?
BC: Nope. I don’t even listen to the ones I just did, you know. The only way that I listen to it is if I’m trying to demonstrate to a musician things, or they want to listen to it. ’Cause a lot of musicians want to hear this, and they want to hear that, because they’ve been referring to a lot of my old songs that they want to do. And I don’t really want to do all those old songs, but they do. Because they don’t know them, and so they want to learn them, so I have to play the record to find out the lyrics again, because I’ve forgotten all the lyrics, because I don’t know this song, I haven’t done this song in 25 years. And I really don’t want to change the key, you know. As you get older, your voice changes and most singers have to change their keys. But I’ve been trying to maintain my keys and that’s not easy.
ES: Just how much practicing and exercise does it take to keep your chops up and your voice in shape?
BC: Oh, an hour, it takes about an hour, two hours, before I hit a lot of exercising, getting your lungs all up. In-house jogging, you know, that kind of stuff.
ES: Will you ever sing a lyric that you don’t like or do you ever – are you always thinking of the lyric when you’re singing?
BC: You have to think of it, because you got to know the lyric [laughter]. If you don’t think of it, you’re going to miss the words, you know. Yeah, you’ve got to think of it because you’ve got to tell the story. You have to have these people that you’re singing this song to relate to this story in some kind of way. As silly as the lyrics may be, you have to use some imagination, you know. It’s funny, you know, it makes a cloudy day sunny. That kind of stuff, you have to do it.
ES: Do you have any specific material planned for your show on Saturday?
BC: Well, I’m going to try to do some of the things out of the last album, which I haven’t overdone yet, which are songs that I really like, you know, so I’m going to try to do some of those things.