Betty Carter | December 4, 1976 | Photo by Mark Weber
FALLING IN LOVE WITH BETTY
Betty Carter at The Lighthouse, 1976
I never could drink brandy. Just didn’t like it. Betty drank Hennessey, in a snifter. It was more of a classy thing with her than a boozer thing. I had a stinger — that’s brandy & creme de menthe over shaved ice. That was the year I drank stingers. Stingers are a drink you go through. You burn out on stingers and move on. Betty held my hand and told the bartender to bring me a stinger. She had a Hennessey. I can still hear how she said it. That voice of hers, up close, was so sensual and intimate it made me nervous. I was a little clumsy so I didn’t know what to do, and besides I was a mere 22, just a kid shaking in my boots. Worse, my wife, who had a jealous streak, wasn’t far away sitting at those iron pews they had at the Lighthouse. Seating was more like something you’d find in the Los Angeles County Jail: welded and bolted to the cement floor in regimented rows.
In those days a jazz act would come to town and hold down a week or two. Start on a Tuesday and run through Sunday night. Mondays were “dark,” is how it was said then, a show business term: dark. Closed. Show business takes a day off, stays home with the family and tosses a stick with the dog. Or, hits the flyways for the next jazz city for another week somewhere else where it buys another fluster’d photographer a drink.
Maybe I missed the boat somewhere but I never concerned myself with notches on my bedpost, and Betty, geezus, I was a bowl of jelly. She squeezing my hand and teasing and giggling and hugging me. I was showing her the 8x10s from the night before and after each one she’d say the most wonderful things.
Dennis Irwin, bass, Betty Carter, vocals, Clifford Barbaro, drums | December 4, 1976 | Photo by Mark Weber
That’s why, years later, when I heard from guys who had worked with her how tough she was I was confused. She was kind and generous and unbelievably gorgeous around me and when she asked if I was coming back the next night I melted, and she said, “Okay honey, I’m going to put your name on my guest list, please come,” squeezing both of my hands and crawling inside my brain with her eyes.
So, I saw her every night that week. The Lighthouse had an arrangement with a beachfront hotel around the corner from the club. Turns out Betty had a man-friend already, not that I had designs. Betty Carter was too much woman for me. And you can take that to the bank.
I hung out with the band. Club dates in those years in California went till 2 o’clock. Rumsey still owned The Lighthouse and his manager Rudy Onderweiser was around, too. Rumsey’s famous modern club in the next beach city south was under construction. I liked Howard Rumsey, he’d make me work to get in on my press pass. I had to explain myself to him, each time. I was broke, Howard, but I’d sure like to see this group. It was after Onderweiser took over that photographers weren’t allowed. Oh, he’d let paying photographers inside, but not with cameras. Rudy wasn’t a bad guy, it was just that during those years, a wave of camera mania had taken over the West Coast. Everybody had an SLR (single lens reflex) 35mm with fourteen different lenses and various other contraptions and they wore those safari vests with rolls of film strapped to the front side like a bandolier. Years before when I was in school and learning photography the photographers wore white lab coats. Now it was safari gear. I wore cowboy boots.
We love you Betty
And these “photographers” would ruin it for the serious photographers. They had no patience, no cool. There’s an etiquette to photographing jazz people at work. Don’t rush it. Keep your camera ready but don’t rush it. Wait. Let the audience have the band the first set. Let them have a couple drinks and loosen up, let their attention waver. On the first couple of numbers an audience is very attentive and they sure don’t want guys in safari outfits crawling all around in front of them. (You can always tell a junior-league photographer by the weird stances they strike as they peer through their lenses before snapping. They seem to like odd perspectives, like getting down on the ground and shooting up, or crouching like a bad actor frightened by a Japanese B-movie monster.) Again, I missed the boat. What’s wrong with a simple 90-degree direct shot? It’s an honest angle, it imposes no editorial content, it’s very objective. Or, about as objective as possible, remembering W. Eugene Smith, one of my heroes, said the first thing you have to forget as a photographer is that notion about “objectivity” — there’s no such thing as being objective when you have a camera in your hands. Well, let’s say I leaned toward objective. I was an anthropologist (non-credentialed) with a camera. I had a subscription to NATURAL HISTORY so I could read Stephen Jay Gould’s monthly column. That made me an anthropologist. That, and that I could whistle the Charlie Parker tune “Anthropology.” That was all the credentials I needed. And a stinger.
You learn not to bother the audience. They paid good money and have a date and set aside this special night. Rudy had to toss out the photographers, they were a pain in the ass. Eventually, that whole mania passed away and you hardly see “photographers” in the clubs anymore.
Curiously, I was at The Lighthouse just last year to catch Lanny Morgan’s Sextet and one of those contortionist-photographers was there doing his thing. Had one of those modern digital cameras where you can preview your exposures. I asked to see. He had some really great shots. Those new cameras do good work, if slightly clinical. I said that I hoped that he was backing them up in a good hard-drive and suggested he forward them to the UCLA jazz archive, as well. (That’s where all of mine go.) I can’t remember if he said he didn’t know how to download them into a hard-drive or if hadn’t had the time, what he did say was that when his camera memory was full he bought another camera. Now, there’s a concept. As you know, rich people are different from you and I. Guys like this Gatsby have the samolians to be cavalier and pluck another camera off the shelf. And he wasn’t using one of those cheap $300 jobs, he had the real McCoy digital camera.
Lanny Morgan | The Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach | June 26, 2011 | Photo by Mark Weber
So, I hung out with the band. I’d just hang around after the show and ask questions and finally Clifford Barbaro said Hey man, come on over to our room. I went over and we watched TV — John Hicks was heavy-set those years, and Dennis Irwin was thin with a beard. Clifford was thin, too. We were all young. I never could understand why people liked those dumb Japanese monster movies. That’s another boat I missed. I would rather ask dumb questions about jazz, but instead we had a glass of bourbon and watched this odd movie. The Pacific Ocean was roiling right outside the door, and all the stars, and soft cool sand. And a volleyball net if I remember correctly. I could have been walking on that beach hand-in-hand with Betty — in my dreams.
So, this is only one of the nights I was with Betty. I’ll show the other nights some other time.
Mark Weber | June 6, 2o12
It was just long ago enough to be a dream: Betty Carter @ The Lighthouse | December 4, 1976
The dream of Betty | Photo by Mark Weber
broadside — 1976