Benny Carter has been as admired as virtually any
saxophonist in jazz. As a trumpeter, although he only occasionally played the
instrument, he achieved a rich tone and had a highly personal and original
style. He will forever be remembered as much for his composing skills as his
playing. His compositions, which include When Lights
Are Low (1936) and Blues in My Heart (1931), became jazz and big band
While mainly a self-taught musician, Carter came
from a musical family and studied piano with his mother and sister at 10
years old before receiving lessons from a private teacher for a year. He
turned to the trumpet as an early teen but soon grew impatient and switched
to saxophone. His early influences included the growl style trumpeter Bubber
Miley and a cousin, trumpeter Cuban Bennett. Carter went to Wilberforce
University to study theology but instead left to play with Horace
Henderson’s Wilberforce Collegians. Carter worked briefly with Duke
Ellington in the 1920s and in 1928 made his recording and arranging debut as
a member of Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra. With no formal music education, he
taught himself to arrange music on two of the orchestra’s recordings,
Charleston Is the Best Dance After All
and Easy Money.
Later that year, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra and assumed
arrangement duties. Other early affiliations included the bands of Chick
Webb (1931), the Chocolate Dandies and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.
By 1932 Carter, already greatly respected by fellow
Jazzmen and now composing as well as playing and arranging, was able to
launch his own band, which he kept together intermittently for the next
couple of years. This early Carter aggregation disbanded in 1934 largely due
to financial reasons. Important soloists in his regular band included Chu
Berry, Sid Catlett, and Teddy Wilson among others. Carter also organized an
all-star band for visiting British composer-critic Spike Hughes. It was a
European connection that would soon mean much as Carter left the U.S. for
France ending up in England as a staff arranger for Henry Hall’s BBC house
radio band in 1936. Prior to leaving the U.S. however Carter made some
memorable contributions as a sideman in Willie Bryant’s band playing
Benny Carter left the U.S. for Paris in 1935 to join
the Willie Lewis band on trumpet and alto before moving to England at the
urgings of Leonard Feather to take the aforementioned BBC arranging job.
Unfortunately, during this period Carter was only able to record as an
instrumentalist sparingly due to musician union rules. In the summer of 1937
he played a season at a Dutch seaside resort leading a big interracial and
international band, the first successful unit of its kind in jazz history.
Before returning to the U.S. in 1938 he also spent time in Scandinavia and
France, recording with Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelly
and other American and European Jazzmen.
Carter nearly missed the Swing Era in the U.S.
returning to New York amid much fanfare from Down Beat magazine in 1938. He
soon re-formed a big band in which sidemen from time to time included Vic
Dickenson, Eddie Heywood, Jonah Jones and Tyree Glenn. Carter also found
work as soloist, composer and arranger on a number of Lionel Hampton
all-star sides for Bluebird in the late 1930s. Among the gems recorded with
Hampton were two Carter originals; When Lights Are Low with
Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and a star-studded tenor section of Chu Berry,
Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster (1939), and a flag waver called I’m In
The Mood For Swing that featured trumpet licks from Harry James
along with Benny's alto saxophone (1938).
Late in 1941 Carter formed a short-lived sextet
consisting of musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Hamilton. In late
1942 he formed another band in California employing from time to time, over
the course of the next few years, the likes of J.J. Johnson, Max Roach,
Buddy Rich, Snooky Young, Gerald Wiggins, Barney Bigard, Henry Coker, Miles
Davis, Al Grey, and others. Benny Carter disbanded his big band in 1946, in
part, because of his growing Hollywood career.
Benny Carter’s successful film scoring career got
off to a good start in 1943 when he arranged the music for Busby Berkeley’s
The Gangs All Here as well as Stormy Weather, an all black
musical. In 1944, he appeared in MGM’s Thousands Cheer with Lena
Horne. He went on to arrange music for An American in Paris, (1951)
The Guns of Navarone, (1961) and was also seen and heard in other
films like The Snow Of Kilimanjaro, (1952) and The View From
Pompey’s Head. (1955) Other film assignments included The Five
Pennies and The Gene Krupa Story both in 1959. Benny Carter
composed and arranged music for 20 television series, including M Squad,
(1957-60) Ironside, (1967-75) The Name of the Game (1968-71)
and It Takes a Thief (1968-70). His success as one of the first black
musicians to break into the lucrative film scoring market and, eventually to
be credited for his work, opened the door for others.
By 1946 Benny Carter was living in Hollywood full
time and writing more and more soundtracks for movies. Early in the year he
was recording and doing live broadcasts with a big band and occasionally
fronting a small group for club work. By spring many of his recordings were
as a free-lance sideman and arranger and can be found on the Keynote, RCA,
and Coral labels. These dates find "The King" backing such up and coming
stars as Errrol Garner, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, and Anita O' Day. 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 1960s 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
LPs with everything from quartets to larger big bands throughout the 1960s.
Several 1950s and 1960’s releases to look for include; Further
Definitions, B.B.B. & Co., Sax Ala Carter, and
Additions To Further Definitions.
Even into the 1970s and 1980s Carter still had his
chops; guest appearances took him to Europe, Japan, and the Near East during
both decades. 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.
In 1969, approached by a sociologist who felt he was not
receiving recognition as one of the great contributors to jazz, Carter began
lecturing at colleges. It was in 1992 that the last recordings issued under his
name were made as leading a group called The Rutgers University Orchestra
featuring Benny Powell, Loren Schoenberg, Frank Wess and others as recorded at
Rutgers. The last recordings Benny Carter appeared on were as an alto man behind
both Marlene Shaw and Bobby Short in 1995.
jazz magazine polls to academic degrees; Carter received many awards and honors.
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.
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.
Carter's ninetieth birthday was celebrated on August 6, 1997 in a gala evening
at the Hollywood Bowl. Characteristically, on August 8, his actual birthday,
Carter gave a concert in Oslo, Norway.
The body of work this gentle giant left behind points to one of the most
influential jazzmen in history. Although his alto playing brought him the most
acclaim, his skill in composing and arranging straight ahead, swinging jazz music is
unparalleled in history. The class, style, and mild mannered, humble demeanor of
Benny Carter helped make a lady out of a once frowned upon and forbidden music,
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