Benny Carter, composer, arranger, bandleader, and multiple instrumentalist best known for work on saxophone:
- Benny Carter’s career was remarkable for both its length and its consistently high musical achievement, from his first recordings in the 1920’s to his youthful-sounding improvisations in the 1990’s. His pure-toned, impeccably phrased performances made him one of the two pre-eminent alto saxophonists in jazz, with Johnny Hodges, from the late 1920’s until the arrival of Charlie Parker in the mid-1940’s. He was also an accomplished soloist on trumpet and clarinet, and on occasion he played piano, trombone and both tenor and baritone saxophones.
He helped to lay the foundation for the swing era of the late 1930’s and early 40’s with arrangements he had written a decade earlier for his own big band and the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb, as well as for Benny Goodman before Goodman was acclaimed as the King of Swing. He later contributed arrangements and compositions to Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
From 1929 to 1946, Mr. Carter led big bands sparkling with young talent. His band in the early 1930’s included the pianist Teddy Wilson, the saxophonist Chu Berry, the trombonist J. C. Higginbotham and the drummer Sid Catlett. A decade later, his contingent of future jazz stars included the trombonists J. J. Johnson and Al Grey, the trumpeter Miles Davis and the drummer Max Roach.
His compositions included “Blues in My Heart,” “When Lights Are Low,” “Blue Star,” “Lonesome Nights,” “Doozy” and “Symphony in Riffs.” Beginning in the early 1940’s, he composed and orchestrated music for films, and from the late 50’s he also composed for television.
In 1962, when Mr. Carter was only 54, the critic Whitney Balliett wrote in The New Yorker that “few of his contemporaries continue to play or arrange or compose as well as he does, and none of them plays as many instruments and arranges and composes with such aplomb.”
“Carter, indeed, belongs to that select circle of pure-jazz musicians who tend to represent the best of their times,” the piece continued.
His public fame did not always match his accomplishments, and his only major hit of the big band era was “Cow-Cow Boogie,” a novelty tune sung by Ella Mae Morse. However, early in his career his fellow musicians nicknamed him simply the King, and among them he was held in universally high regard.
The trumpeter Doc Cheatham recalled that “we broke our backs to get into Benny’s band” because musicians learned so much from performing with him. Sy Oliver, whose brilliant arrangements gave the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra of the 1930’s and the Tommy Dorsey band of the 1940’s their distinctive cachet, said Mr. Carter was “the most complete professional musician I’ve ever known.”
And John Hammond, the record producer who nurtured the careers of Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, said Mr. Carter was “one of the great influences in American music, one of its unsung heroes.”
Mr. Carter was not widely known to the jazz public until his emergence, in his 70’s, as an acclaimed elder statesman. His lack of public recognition was sometimes attributed to the fact that his bearing was reserved and dignified, that he was not a flamboyant showman. Moreover, as the drummer J. C. Heard suggested, “his music was a little too refined” for the 1930’s and 40’s, when he was leading a big band.
….From 1946 until 1970, he was virtually out of the public eye. Aside from a few tours with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe in the 1950’s, he stayed behind the scenes as a composer, arranger and occasional instrumentalist in films and, starting in 1959, in television.
In Hollywood, he was one of the first black arrangers to break the color barrier, working on top television series like “M Squad.” He also arranged music for almost every major singer of the day, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé.
….Carter arrangements and compositions, old and new, stayed in the books of groups like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra into the 1990’s. By 1987 there were more than 50 recorded versions of just one of his tunes, “Blues in My Heart.” In the 1990’s, the Basie band, then led by Grover Mitchell, was still playing excerpts from his 1960 “Kansas City Suite” at almost every performance.
In 1996, he was one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, and in 2000, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
When Mr. Carter turned 90, in 1997, the occasion was observed with a concert tribute two days before his birthday at the Hollywood Bowl; it could not be held on his actual birthday because by then he was in Oslo to give a concert.
A musician whose recording career extended from the 78 era through LP’s and well into the time of CD’s, Benny Carter lived to see his own Web site, designed by the scholars Ed and Laurence Berger, sons of Morroe Berger, his biographer, at www.bennycarter.com. [NY Times]
Now that’s a career.