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Benny Carter: 1907-2003
Benny Carter
Saxophone, trumpet, arranger, composer, bandleader

Born: August 8, 1907 in New York City, New York
Died: July 12, 2003 in Los Angeles, California


Revered elder statesman of jazz

by Kenny Mathieson
Copyright © 2003 Kenny Mathieson

The Scotsman

Carter ob

Benny Carter never achieved the popular renown of contemporaries like Duke Ellington or Count Basie, but his standing in jazz was on a par with any of the great names in the music.

His work in the film studios of Los Angeles took him away from jazz for long periods, but gave him a comfortable life style and the wherewithal to buy the expensive cars he loved. It was a level of material success which eluded most jazz musicians, but it was built on a foundation of major and lasting jazz achievement.

He was born Bennett Lester Carter in New York, and brought up in the then tough neighbourhood known as San Juan Hill in Manhattan. He acquired an early love for the trumpet, and had role models close to home, including his cousin, Cuban Bennett, and Bubber Miley, then a star of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, who lived nearby.

He acquired his first instrument, a trumpet, in a pawnshop when he was 13, but after a frustrating weekend of failure to get to grips with the instrument, took it back and traded it for the horn most associated with him, an alto saxophone. He did master trumpet eventually, and was one of the few players able to make the difficult change of embouchure and technique required to swap between the reed and brass instruments.

He began sitting in with bands in Harlem in his mid-teens, and got his first real job as a musician in 1926, when he joined band leader Charlie Johnson. Two years later he joined the band led by Horace Henderson (the brother of Fletcher Henderson), and was elected by his fellow players to take over the leadership of the group when Henderson quit in the middle of a tour.

That launched him on a career as a leader of both big and small ensembles. In the mid-1930s, he spent time in Europe and in the UK, where he worked as an arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra under Henry Hall, and led his own band. His presence made a profound impact on the emerging generation of jazz players in London.

He moved to Hollywood in the early 1940s, and made his first arrangement for a film soundtrack with Stormy Weather in 1943, although he received no screen credit for it.

By the time he made that move, he was regarded as one of the two pre-eminent alto saxophonists in jazz, along with Johnny Hodges (Charlie Parker was about to make his own claim on that title). His purity and clarity of sound and beautifully contoured phrasing on alto were complemented by accomplished performances on clarinet and trumpet, and he occasionally played piano, trombone, and both tenor and baritone saxophones into the bargain.

His big band arrangements for band leaders like Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie are among the great works of the Swing era, and his many compositions include the widely covered tunes ‘Blues In My Heart’ and ‘When Lights Are Low’.

His bands were always replete with talent, from pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Sid Catlett in the early 1930s to trombonists J. J. Johnson and Al Grey, trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach a decade later.

His success in the studio took him away from performing jazz more or less entirely from the mid-1940s until 1970, other than very occasional outings, although he did continue to record, amassing a considerable discography in the process.

In Hollywood, though, he was one of the first arrangers and composers to break the colour bar in the studios, and was instrumental in securing the amalgamation of the two branches of the previously segregated Musicians Union in the city.

He did a huge amount of work in both film and television, as well as providing studio arrangements for singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé.

He was invited to do some teaching at Princeton University in 1969, and taught there several times in the ensuing decade. The teaching led in turn to a resumption of his jazz career from 1970 onwards, and he was greeted as a revered elder statesman of the music on his return to action. He performed for three different Presidents at the White House, and received numerous awards, including a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.

He toured and recorded extensively until illness forced him to stop playing in 1997. He was married five times, and is survived by his fifth wife, Hilda, a daughter, a granddaughter, and a grandson.

Kenny Mathieson
Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland.


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Jazz loses its elder statesman

by David Dupont
Copyright © 2003 David Dupont

Sentinel-Tribune, Bowling Green


Jazz lost its elder statesman when Benny Carter died. At 95 Carter was a last remaining link to the earliest days of the swing era when the music attained its greatest prominence. Yet for having witnessed and made, so much history, Carter remained in so many ways a player.

Into his 90s he remained active, etching eloquent statements on his principal horn, alto sax. He also played trumpet with an understated grace that packed more music into a few notes than more garrulous horn players could in an entire chorus.

He played on hundreds of sessions including some of singer Billie Holiday's best, late work and on a saxophone summit session that brought him together with bebop legend Charlie Parker and top swing masters Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster.

Carter's distinctive sound shone brightly even in the most star studded company. As a composer he penned numerous compositions, the most famous being 'When Lights Are Low', a tune Miles Davis entered into the standard repertoire (albeit in somewhat altered form).

As a composer and arranger he was particularly noted for his skill at voicing a saxophone section. Carter kept returning to the saxophone section-with-rhythm format. He penned classic charts for sessions in 1937 with Coleman Hawkins and a contingent of French musicians including guitarist Django Reinhardt; in 1966 again with Hawkins joined by Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse; and in 1988 as one of the more than a dozen recordings made for the Music Masters label.

As a composer, he was a pioneer in integrating the soundstages of Hollywood, landing jobs scoring the music for television shows, including The Mod Squad. For a time in the 1960s and 1970s it seemed he was swallowed up by studio work. Then in the mid-1970s, first under the auspices of Pablo and later the Music Masters label, he re-emerged, issuing a series of musical declarations that senior citizens could swing just as hard as their juniors.

The best summation of his work as a writer and player came in 1987 when he recorded Central City Sketches with the American Jazz Orchestra. He helped unseat the then deeply held belief that jazz was a young musician's art, and replaced it with the understanding that an improviser's work, like that of artists in other fields, could deepen with age. For jazz lovers Carter will forever be in his prime.

JJA members are invited to submit a full obituary or appreciation.

David Dupont
David Dupont is a member of the JJA


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With 3 reader comments, latest July 18, 2003