Pluginin Jazz Hall Of Fame: Who Was Betty Roché?

“She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations.” – Duke Ellington

Mary Elizabeth Roché later to be known as Betty Roché was born on January 9, 1918. Like Ella Fitzgerald, she began her career by winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She sang with the Savoy Sultans in 1941-2, and with Hot Lips Page and Lester Young. She joined Ellington’s band in 1943 as a replacement for Ivie Anderson, and did so just in time for the Orchestra’s first major Carnegie Hall concert, where she attracted attention for her powerful delivery in Black, Brown and Beige.

She also sang with Lester Young and Hot Lips Page, and in the 1940s performed at Minton’s Playhouse with bebop musicians including Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. She joined the Earl Hines band in 1944, and recorded with him, before leaving the music business for a few years. In 1951 she rejoined Ellington, and the following year recorded an extended version of “Take the A Train” on the LP Ellington Uptown, which became the song’s best-known arrangement and continues to feature on compilations of Ellington’s work.

Eventually, Betty Roché settled in San Diego, California, and worked occasionally in clubs and with Charles Brown and Clark Terry. In the mid-1950s, she was part of the cast recording of The Complete Porgy and Bess.

In 1956, Betty Roché began her solo career and introduced more of a bop-influenced style with her small catalog of three solo albums; Take The A Train (Bethlehem,1956), Singin’ and Swingin’ (Prestige, 1960) and Lightly and Politely (Prestige, 1961). The impression she made on the jazz scene is actually larger than many think, as she is credited with being a major influence both on bebop singers and the public’s ability to deal with that kind of musical adventure.

Roche’s career remained erratic. She worked sporadically in clubs, she seemed to be half-hearted about her career by this time, and eventually slipped into obscurity a few years later. Unfortunately, the lack of easily available documentation of some of her activities has hindered full understanding of her career.  

Betty Roché died in February 1999, aged 81 and is survived by 3 Grandchildren

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