Nov. 4 2015 03:34 PM

Veteran singer Betty Baxter gets lifetime tribute

It’s a long stretch from plucky song-and-dance gal Shirley Temple to cerebral jazz pianist Bill Evans, but that’s Betty Baxter’s musical path in a nutshell. Baxter, 83, has been a subtle but strong staple on the mid-Michigan jazz for decades. This Sunday, she’ll be the seventh honoree at the annual Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan tribute.

Baxter sings in a smooth, conversational style that drifts into the room like the smell of lilacs. She doesn’t try to overpower the audience. She uses vibrato sparingly and keeps her intonation on a relaxed leash. If there’s effort involved, and there surely is, it doesn’t show.

“Everybody does these heavy blues, and I just get up and sing,” she said. “I’m just me.”

As a youngster growing up in Grand Rapids, Baxter sang and danced to the music coming from the radio. At the movies, she fell harder than most for the charisma of Shirley Temple — and that’s a hard fall.

“I wanted nothing else but to be her,” she said.

If there’s any Shirley Temple left in Baxter’s latter-day jazz performances, it’s in her rapport with the audience and eagerness to please.

“I like to get up there and get silly and make a fool of myself,” she said. “But I also like to sing about love and heartache.”

As a teenager, Baxter quickly surpassed her tap-dance teacher and graduated to musical theater.

Her first role was a juicy one: the lovelorn Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” at the Circle at the Rowe Theatre in Grand Rapids in 1957. Audiences and critics loved her.

In the 1960s, Baxter moved to Philadelphia, appearing in shows like “The Flower Drum Song” and “You Can’t Take It With You” at night while working as an accountant by day. When she was transferred to Los Angeles, she sang sporadic gigs and ended up on the same bill as crooner Pat Boone one night.

On another gig at an LA club, she asked to sit in with bassist Leroy Vinnegar.

“He looked at me like most piano players probably look at most chick singers who couldn’t carry a tune in a basket,” Baxter said.

Vinnegar ended up playing with Baxter for much of the night and even gave her some original tunes to record.

Baxter moved to Lansing in 1977 to work in the Michigan Senate, first as a clerk, then as an accountant. At night, she began working various venues with local stalwarts like pianist Sandy Izenson, a frequent collaborator until Izenson died in 2010.

Baxter credits pianist-bassist Fred Mitchell with turning her onto jazz for real.

Early on, Mitchell asked Baxter if she knew who Bill Evans was. (Evans is the lyrical, sophisticated pianist best known for playing with trumpeter Miles Davis.)

“Bill Evans? Where is he playing?” she asked him.

Before long, Baxter seamlessly blended the prismatic harmonies, mercurial shifts and layered nuances of mid-20th-century jazz into her extroverted, audience-pleasing style.

“I became jazz,” she said. “I haven’t looked back since.”

As some singers get older, they embrace a weathered, I’ve-been-around weariness. Others try to impress you with how “timeless” they are. Baxter does neither. Her purity of personality and sound makes timelessness the most natural thing in the world, no big deal.

“I often question it myself,” she said. “I seem to have the same voice I had when I was in my 20s.”

Every jazz musician in the Lansing area wishes there were more venues, and Baxter is no exception. But she’s grateful for a recent resurgence in jazz in the area.

She’s played at local festivals and is grateful for recent gigs involving MSU’s stellar Professors of Jazz. Her band, Satin Sounds, is still a staple at venues and special events around town.

At a vocal summit at the 2013 Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, Baxter traded choruses with Ramona Collins, Betty Joplin and Mardra Thomas.

“I felt like a new kid on the same stage with these great singers,” she said.

This year, Baxter released an album, “Love Remembers,” with a quartet of mid-Michigan stalwarts, including bassist Ed Fedewa. A studio album with MSU guitar professor Randy Napoleon and bassist Kurt Krahnke is close to completion.

“I keep on keeping on,” she said. She was surprised to be picked for Sunday’s tribute and told the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan board that she was worried “nobody will come.”

Not likely. As usual, a stellar array of local jazz musicians, including Baxter herself, will parade on and off the bandstand for three solid hours to pay tribute.

Baxter expressed one other concern.

“I don’t want to cry and make a scene,” she said. “I’m hoping they roast me and make me laugh.”

Plan on a bit of both.

The Satin Sounds of Betty Baxter

Seventh annual Jazz Alliance of Mid- Michigan tribute 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8 Old Town Marquee 319 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing $30/$25 adv.

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