Benny Carter – Giant of Jazz

May 11, 2013

These days it is easy for certain words to become meaningless. High on the list, especially when the subject is popular culture in general and music in particular, is the word ‘great’. All too often, we see a musician written of as being ‘great’ and referred to as a ‘giant’ when it takes only a moment’s pause for thought to recognize that none of this hyperbole is in any way justified.

There are exceptions. And among them is a musician who really was great and a true giant of jazz. His name is Benny Carter.

Original Jazz Classics/Contemporary Records

Original Jazz Classics/
Contemporary Records

What is especially notable about this masterly musician is that it was not wide-eyed fans who first recognized and praised his talent, but his peers and they and their successors have never lost their admiration. Indeed, it was Benny Carter’s peers, and not some weary publicist, who very early in his career gave him the accolade: the King.

Bennett Lester Carter’s life began inauspiciously. He was born on 8 August 1907, in New York City, in a neighborhood of Manhattan known as San Juan Hill. In those days, San Juan Hill was a rough, tough place and home to many who would make a career in crime; but for all its potential disadvantages, it was also a district where young men could, if they chose, make music.

Carter was not alone among residents who took their musical talent into the world of jazz. His cousin, Theodore ‘Cuban’ Bennett was a widely respected (although unrecorded) trumpeter, and another cousin was Chicago-born clarinettist Darnell Howard. Among near-neighbors were trumpeter James ‘Bubber’ Miley, who gained fame with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, soon-to-be saxophonists Rudy Powell and Russell Procope, and trumpeter Bobby Stark. Eager to become a musician, Carter was encouraged by his parents, both of whom played instruments. As a small child, he played piano but as he entered his teens he decided that he wanted to play trumpet. His eagerness was not, however, matched with patience. And unable to master the instrument in the couple of days he allowed for the endeavor, he went back to the pawnshop where he’d bought it, and exchanged the trumpet for a C-Melody saxophone. This time he achieved quicker command and with the assistance of tuition from Harold Proctor and Lt. Eugene Mickell Sr., within two years he was sufficiently proficient to be made welcome when he sat in with bands in Harlem, which is where he moved with his family in 1923.

Jazz Legends Records

Jazz Legends Records

With trumpeter June Clark’s band, he made the switch to alto saxophone, and he then played with various bands, including those led by Billy Fowler, Lois Deppe, Earl Hines (where he played baritone saxophone), Horace Henderson, James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington (as a substitute), Fletcher Henderson, and then joined Charlie Johnson’s band at Smalls Paradise. He made his recording debut with Johnson, in 1928, and it is noteworthy that on the date the band played two of Carter’s arrangements; this was an additional talent he was swiftly fostering. The respect Carter engendered in fellow musicians became apparent in late 1928 when Carter rejoined Horace Henderson’s band. This was just before the leader quit, and despite Carter’s youth, he was still only 21, the musicians chose him as their leader.

During the early 1930s, Carter alternated between leading a band and working as respected sideman and arranger with others, including Fletcher Henderson again, Chick Webb, and he was musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.

Frog Records

Frog Records

While he never achieved a fraction of the acclaim granted other bandleaders during the 1930s, Carter’s band was one of the most highly regarded among musicians. Those who joined the band considered it to be an unparalleled academy of musical learning. That these ‘students’ in the early 1930s included names as noteworthy as pianist Teddy Wilson, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, trombonists Dicky Wells and J. C. Higginbotham, and drummer Sid Catlett, gives some idea of Carter’s perceived status within the profession.

In addition to writing charts for most of the bands in which he played, his arrangement of Liza for Webb was especially notable, Carter also wrote for Teddy Hill, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. In the years that had passed since his abortive attempt to play the trumpet, Carter had mastered the instrument and played this with Willie Bryant. In addition to his superior playing of the alto, C-Melody and baritone saxophones, trumpet and piano, he also much more than merely competent on clarinet, tenor saxophone and trombone.

In 1935, Carter crossed the Atlantic where he joined Willie Lewis’s band in Paris. He spent the next three years in Europe, playing also in Denmark and the Netherlands.

EMI Records

EMI Records

In this same period, he commuted frequently to London where he worked as an arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra led by Henry Hall. During these years, he made a number of very good recordings with multinational bands that included musicians such as Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt.

In 1938, he returned to the USA, a country now in the grip of swing fever, and formed another band with which he held a two-year residency at the Savoy Ballroom. Sadly the sheer musicality of Carter’s bands, allied as it was to the unassuming dignity of his personal bearing, failed to appeal to fans and he never gained the popularity achieved by others. During the big band era he had only one hit, Cow-Cow Boogie, a novelty trifle sung by Ella Mae Morse.

Parlophone Records

Parlophone Records

Other recordings in these years included small group work with the Chocolate Dandies and the Varsity Seven.

From early in the 1940s, Carter spent much of his time in Los Angeles, working as an arranger, composer and orchestrator in the film studios. Back then, race was a factor in Hollywood and Carter’s work was often uncredited. He continued to lead his own bands, big and small, in LA and back in New York and once again, the quality of the musicians he hired remained high.

Jazz Door Records

Jazz Door Records

In the late years of the 1930s and in the early 1940s, the musicians who honed their craft in the ranks of Carter’s bands included players such as trombonists J.J. Johnson and Al Grey, trumpeters Doc Cheatham, Jonah Jones and Miles Davis, and drummers J.C. Heard and Max Roach, all of them stylistically very different from sidemen in his earlier bands.

By the late 1940s, Carter’s film studio work was consuming most of his time and energies, and this continued through the next two and more decades, a period when he also worked extensively in television.

American Jazz Classics

American Jazz Classics

Blue Note Records

Blue Note Records

Nevertheless, in the 1950s, and shrugging off a 1956 heart attack, he still found time to play with Jazz At The Philharmonic and to form and lead bands for residencies, short tours, and recording sessions. Notable among these recording dates were Aspects, 1961’s influential Further Definitions album, on which he was joined by Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse, and 1966’s Additions To Further Definitions, with a band that included Mundell Lowe and Teddy Edwards.

Universal (Japan)& Zoom Records

Universal (Japan)
& Zoom Records

An early example of his film work, off-screen and on, is Stormy Weather (1943) and he continued through Edge Of Doom (1950), 1951’s An American In Paris, A View From Pompey’s Head (1955),The Sun Also Rises (1957), Too Late Blues, Town Without Pity (both 1961), State Fair (1962), A Man Called Adam (1966), Buck And The Preacher (1972), and 1975’s TVM, Louis Armstrong-Chicago Style among a very long list. On television, he worked on several popular series, including scoring many episodes of M Squad, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Banyon, and Name Of The Game.

The musicality and musicianship Carter possessed endeared him to singers and he wrote arrangements for a wide range of jazz and jazz-influenced pop singers, among them Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan.

It was fortunate indeed that Carter attracted the biographers he merited. At the end of the 1960s, he had been invited by Morroe Berger, of Princeton University, to lead seminars and classes on campus, a scene he had first visited in 1928 as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s band. bergerbookThis activity continued through most of the 1970s, during which time Carter was awarded an honorary Master of Humanities degree. In 1982, Berger, brought out his two-volume biography, Benny Carter: A Life In American Music (written in collaboration with Ed Berger and James Patrick), which fully documented the life of this amazing musician. Except, of course, in 1982, Carter still had two decades of music making ahead of him.

The 1970s had seen Carter’s re-emergence as a concert and touring artist. He made numerous national and international tours, played jazz clubs and concert halls, and made many albums. One of his concert performances, at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival, is especially rewarding and utterly belies the fact that he was then a month short of his 70th birthday. In 1987, he teamed up with John Lewis and the occasionally-assembled All-American Jazz Orchestra for concerts dedicated to performing works written especially for big bands. To this repertoire, Carter contributed a major long work, Central City Sketches, rehearsing, conducting and playing solo alto at its premiere.

Nimbus Records

Nimbus Records

In 1989, his 82nd birthday was honored by a concert at New York’s Lincoln Center at which some of his songs were sung by Sylvia Syms and Ernestine Anderson. He celebrated his 85th birthday with a concert at Rutgers University, premiering two new suites written especially for the occasion: Tales Of The Rising Sun Suite and Harlem Renaissance Suite. In 1997, a special concert was held in honor of his 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl at which a new composition by John Clayton was played. Dedicated to Carter, the three-part suite was entitled, very appropriately, Maestro. The concert could not, though, be held on the actual day of Carter’s birth; instead, it was held two days earlier because on his birthday the indefatigable maestro had a gig in Norway.

Among awards received by Carter were the Kennedy Center Honor in 1996, an Honorary Degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1998, and the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In May 2000, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra premiered two of Carter’s new works, Time To Remember, memorializing President John F. Kennedy, and Again And Again, a ballad performed by alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton. The occasion was a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, remembering the city’s Central Avenue jazz scene, at which Maestro was played.

As a soloist, Carter’s fluent playing on alto saxophone and the gorgeously liquid sound he created made him kin to his near-contemporary, Johnny Hodges, and between them they effectively ruled the world on that instrument until the arrival of Charlie Parker. Although less well known, his clarinet playing was similarly rich and flowing. All these comments can be applied just as readily to his trumpet playing. Very few musicians double on reeds and brass; of those few that do, it is hard to think of any who achieve this with such apparent ease as Carter. In an interview some years ago, Bill Berry recalled an appearance with Carter in Tokyo who was, as usual, playing alto that night. Someone in the audience requested that Carter play trumpet. Although he did not have his own trumpet, and as far as anyone knew had not picked one up in years, Carter borrowed Berry’s cornet and played with the perfection of someone who was in daily practice.

Blue Notes-stretched-xtraCarter’s composing blended silky melodies with vibrant swing. Among his compositions are Blues In My Heart, which is one of the most recorded of his instrumentals, When Lights Are Low, also extensively recorded as an instrumental and as a vocal, with lyrics by Spencer Williams, Blue Star, Devil’s Holiday, Dream Lullaby, Blue Interlude, Lonesome Nights, Doozy, which defies anyone not to swing when playing it, Symphony In Riffs, which was also the title of a 1995 video release, and he also wrote Kansas City Suite for Count Basie’s band in the 1960s.

Fresh Sound Records

Fresh Sound Records

Benny Carter’s arranging was of a very high standard and he ranks with Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and a handful of others as an important architect of swing era big band concepts. His writing for the saxophone section was perhaps the most instantly recognizable element of his arranging talent. The smoothly flowing, seemingly simple yet decidedly complex sound he created was just one of the many joys that this remarkable man brought to jazz.

Benny Carter was married five times. His first marriage ended with the death of his wife in 1928 and three other marriages ended in divorce. He did find marital happiness though; in 1940, he had met Hilma Ollila Arons when she visited the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to hear him play. Despite mutual attraction, the couple recognized that times were not right for a mixed-race relationship. Fortuitously, almost 40 years later, the couple met again and they were married in 1979, remaining together until his death on 12 July 2003.

To return to those words used at the opening of these remarks, Benny Carter truly was a great musician and one of the giants of jazz. We shall not see his like again.

alto saxFor these notes I have drawn upon an obituary of Benny Carter, written for Jazz Journal and appearing in the September 2003 issue.

The official Benny Carter web site, run by Ed and Laurence Berger, should not be missed by anyone interested in the life and career of this extraordinary and immensely talented man who remains a true giant, not only in the world of jazz but in the wider world of all good music.

Music students will find much of interest on the Smithsonian Institution’s website, under the heading of Benny Carter’s Music Class.  Many of Benny Carter’s albums are readily available from walk-in and on-line stores, the latter including Amazon.


One Response to “Benny Carter – Giant of Jazz”

  1. Dave Radlauer on May 15th, 2013 11:51 pm

    Nice commentary on Carter. You might enjoy my Carter page:

    For example: Details of Frank Goudie’s life, which spans 2/3 of jazz history and three continents. Originally a trumpeter from New Orleans he moved to Paris in 1925, switched to tenor sax and was at the center of Harlem in Montmartre, buddies with Django. Spent WW II in South America. He later moved to San Francisco and was a respected elder statesman of jazz playing exclusively clarinet.


    Also popular: Club Hangover Archive:


    Dave Radlauer

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