Born: August 8, 1907 | Died: July 12, 2003 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
Benny Carter's long career was consistently characterized by high musical achievement, and he developed a unique and readily identifiable style as both an alto saxophonist and an arranger. He was able to double on trumpet and was also proficient on clarinet, piano, and trombone. His saxophone playing was pure-toned, fluid, and flawlessly phrased. One of the trademark sounds of his arrangements was four saxophones harmonizing one of his swooping melodies as if they were one instrument improvising. He also created the big-band model of contending brass and reed sections, anticipated harmonic trends that would later appear in bebop, and transformed a clunky Western notion of musical time into something more buoyant and fresh.
Benjamin Lester Carter was born on August 8, 1907, in New York City and grew up in tManhattan (near Lincoln Center). He took piano lessons from his mother as a young boy, but his musical heroes were trumpeters like his cousin, Theodore Bennett, and Bubber Miley, who played with Duke Ellington. At 13, he bought a trumpet, but discouraged by how difficult it was to play, he traded it for a saxophone a week later. Through a great deal of practice on his own, and the occasional help of several saxophone teachers, Carter quickly grew into a fine player.
At age 15, the young Carter sat in with Harlem bands. From 1924 to 1928, Carter paid his dues as a sideman in a number of New York City jazz bands and by working for a short time for pianist Earl Hines in Philadelphia. At age 19, he received his first full-time job with Charlie Johnson's band. He entered the recording studio for the first time with Charlie Johnson's Orchestra in 1927, sessions that included two pieces arranged by Carter. He would later recall that he learned to arrange by spreading the blueprints of a composition on the floor and then writing the individual parts for the trumpet, saxophone, and other instruments. His new skill allowed him to join Fletcher Henderson's band in 1928, replacing Don Redman as the orchestra's arranger. “The charts that came out of Henderson's band are arguably the most influential of the big band era, noted All About Jazz.
In 1931 Carter joined McKinney's Cotton Pickers and, thanks to his growing reputation as an arranger, sold charts on the side to musicians such as Bennie Moten. He also taught himself to play trumpet during the early thirties, and was recording solos with the instrument after only two years. In 1932 Carter formed his first orchestra with a topnotch ensemble that included tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Sid Catlett, and trombonist Dicky Wells. Although he would start a number of other big bands during the thirties and forties, he never found the same level of success as Duke Ellington or Count Basie. More importantly, though, he won respect from fellow musicians.
Carter traveled to Paris in 1935 to play with the Willie Lewis Orchestra, and remained in Europe for the next three years, performing with bands in England, France, and Scandinavia. He worked with the BBC orchestra in 1936 and joined saxophonist Coleman Hawkins for a recording with guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1937. After returning to the United States in 1938, Carter played various dates with Lionel Hampton and Billie Holliday before forming his own orchestra, which spent two years playing the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. His arrangements were much in demand and appeared on recordings by Ellington, Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. Though he only had one major hit in the big band era (a novelty song called Cow-Cow Boogie, sung by Ella Mae Morse), during the 1930s Carter composed and/or arranged many of the pieces that became Swing Era classics, such as When Lights Are Low, Blues in My Heart, and Lonesome Nights.
In 1941, Carter stripped down to a sextet that included bebop groundbreakers Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie. He also wrote arrangements for a radio show, Your Hit Parade. In 1942 he reorganized his band and moved to California, settling in Hollywood, where he would live for the rest of his life. In the mid-1940s, Carter's band included such leading modernists as Miles Davis, Art Pepper, Max Roach, and J.J. Johnson, all of whom have expressed a debt to Carter as an important mentor. Many tremendous loose and swinging affairs were recorded on Capitol Records in 1946 and '47 as well. CD's, with excellent sound quality, are available today which showcase Benny working with Red Norvo, Kay Starr, Peggy Lee, Julia Lee, and fronting various small groups with the likes of Arnold Ross and Sonny White on piano.
Carter continued to play and record in the 1950s. In the early ‘50s he switched to the Verve record label and toured with the Norman Granz traveling jazz show called “Jazz At The Philharmonic.” It was while affiliated with the Verve label in the 1950s that he was recorded with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and others. His unmistakable alto can be heard on many of the M-Squad songs in the late 50’s; he participated on several Bobby Troup “Stars Of Jazz” sides; he played, arranged and composed for a large group on the Aspects release in 1959.
Benny Carter visited Australia in 1960 with his own quartet, performed at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie, and recorded with a Scandinavian band in Switzerland the same year. His studio work in the ‘60s included arranging and sometimes performing on Peggy Lee’s Blues Cross Country, (1961) Sugar And Spice, (1961) Mink Jazz, (1962) and on the single “I’m A Woman” in the same year. He wrote several arrangements as recorded by Sarah Vaughan and he was nominated for a Grammy for his arrangement on the Ray Charles recording of “Busted.” He also recorded numerous highly swinging records with everything from quartets to larger big bands throughout the 1960s. Several ‘50s and ‘60’s releases to look for include; “Further Definitions,” “B.B.B. & Co.,” “Sax Ala Carter,” and “Additions To Further Definitions.”
Carter returned to active performing in 1970 following an invitation by Morroe Berger to lecture at Baldwin-Wallace College. He became a visiting professor at Princeton University in 1973 and received a Doctorate of Humanities from the institution in 1974. The following year, at Berger's suggestion, Carter traveled to the Middle East under the sponsorship of the United States State Department for a lecture and concert series.
He was recorded in Montreux with Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Zoot Simms, Joe Pass and others in 1975. He recorded “The King,” with Milt Jackson; “Carter Gillespie Inc.” with Dizzy Gillespie; “Wonderland,” with another excellent small group, all in 1976. Mr. Carter was recorded live abroad numerous times into the 1980’s.
It was in the 1980’s that two especially incredible LP’s were recorded featuring “The King.” Carter was 78 years old when “A Gentleman and His Music,” was recorded for Concord in 1985 featuring an all out jam with Scott Hamilton, Ed Bickert, Gene Harris, John Clayton, Joe Wilder and drummer Jimmie Smith on the cut “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” Two years later, at 80, he reunited with old pal Dizzy Gillespie for the 1987 Musicmasters release called “I’m In the Mood for Swing.”
When Carter turned 75, in 1982, New York's WKCR radio station commemorated his birthday by playing his music for 177 hours. In 1984 the Kool Festival honored him with a retrospective concert. Carter received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1988, his “Central City Sketches,” recorded with the American Jazz Orchestra in 1987, was nominated for a Grammy. In a 1989 critics' poll conducted by Down Beat magazine, Carter placed first in the arranger's category. In 1990, both Jazz Times and Down Beat magazines ranked Carter the jazz artist of the year in their international critics' polls. In 1994, he won a Grammy for Elegy in Blue.
In 1996, Carter was among five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. In March of that year he played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in an evening of Carter's music conducted by Wynton Marsalis. The band performed a new suite, Echoes of San Juan Hill, as well as playing some of his classics. Also in 1996, the lauded documentary on Carter, “Symphony in Riffs,” was released on home video. When Carter celebrated his 90th birthday in 1997, a concert tribute was held at the Hollywood Bowl.
Two recordings that showcase his sound most famously are 1937's Honeysuckle Rose, recorded with Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins in Europe, and the same tune reprised on his 1961 album “Further Definitions,” an album considered a masterpiece and one of jazz's most influential recordings. Nicknamed “The King” by fellow musicians early in his career, Carter was beloved not only for his musical genius, but also for his reserved, dignified, and modest personality. He eschewed flamboyance in his playing and was known as a gracious, warm and witty man.
Carter died on July 12, 2003, from bronchitis at Cedars- Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. I don't know that I've made any real contribution, a modest Carter stated; “I've done what I've set out to do, that was have fun with the music, enjoy it, perform it, listen to it, and I have, to my satisfaction, achieved much that I had not even thought of.
Four institutions; Princeton (1974), Rutgers (1991), Harvard (1994), and the New England Conservatory (1998) have awarded him honorary doctorates. He received a Lifetime Achievement award and two Grammys from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. His star may be found on Hollywood's legendary Walk of Fame. In 1996, Carter received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. His achievements have been recognized by such organizations as ASCAP, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the American Society of Arts and Letters.
Source: James Nadal