Full name Bennett Lester "Benny" Carter; born August 8, 1907, in New York City; son of Norrell (a postal clerk and longshoreman) and Sadie (Bennett) Carter; married Rosa Lee Jackson, 1925 (marriage ended); married Margaret Johnson, 1956 (marriage ended); married Hilma Ollila Arons. Addresses: Residence --8321 Skyline Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90046. Record company --c/o Concord Jazz, Inc., Box 845, 2888 Willow Pass Rd., Concord, Calif. 94522.

"I can only do what I know," stated Benny Carter in a 1989 interview on Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz," a National Public Radio syndicated program. Taken at face value, Carter's statement leads to the conclusion that he can do virtually anything in the diverse world of music. Dating back to the mid-1920s, Carter has successfully combined the following roles: alto saxophonist; trumpeter; band leader; pianist; clarinetist; trombonist; vocalist; arranger and composer for big swing bands; composer for Hollywood film scores; film actor; composer and arranger for many top vocalists; composer of scores for television series and programs; composer of popular songs; teacher; lecturer; State Department representative. As he approached his eighty-second birthday, Carter was still vitally active in several of these callings.

With Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker, Carter set the standard for jazz alto saxophonists of all styles. His trumpet and clarinet work has drawn raves from critics and fellow players. As an arranger early in the Swing Era, Carter led the breakthrough that blended jazz solos with ensemble playing in a manner that freed big bands to really swing. His writing for films and television likewise paved the way for acceptance by media moguls and the paying public of newer, jazz-oriented sounds. And, although his bands of whatever size never achieved commercial success, two generations of chosen musicians cherish the time spent playing in one of the bands led by Benny Carter.

Born in the tough San Juan Hill section of New York, Carter began taking piano lessons from his mother and an older sister. When a cornet couldn't be mastered in a few days, he traded it in for a C-melody saxophone which was soon replaced by an alto at the urging of his first leader. Carter remembers that his first professional job, with the legendary pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith's trio, brought out that leader's "iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove" quality. When, in 1925, Carter joined Horace Henderson who was leading Wilberforce (Ohio) University's "Collegians," he considered himself, at age eighteen, a professional musician. Extremely curious and largely self-taught, Benny Carter had already begun acquiring some of the musical tools that would foster his astounding versatility. Upon returning to New York in 1926, he played with a variety of bands including those of Horace's better-known brother, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Johnson, with whom he probably made his 1927 recording debut.

Carter's interest in arranging burgeoned while playing with Fletcher Henderson and Johnson, whose band recorded what is Carter's first confirmed arrangement, "Charleston Is the Best Dance of All," in 1928. After leading different versions of his own band, his next move was to join the popular McKinney's Cotton Pickers in Detroit, replacing Don Redman in 1931 as music director. Gunther Schuller, in his first volume on the history of jazz, Early Jazz , describes how Carter was instrumental in freeing up arrangements: "Carter obviously has found the long-sought-after solution for making a section swing: the answer lay in syncopation. . . . Once the [soloist] could detach himself from explicitly stating the four beats and thus get 'inside' the beats a vast field of rhythmic emancipation lay ahead." He was encouraged (and sometimes coached) by trumpeter Doc Cheatham to apply his obvious gifts to the trumpet. By the time of his 1933 recordings with the Chocolate Dandies, Carter's prowess on alto, trumpet, and clarinet was acknowledged throughout the music business, as was his talent as a writer and arranger. During this period, fellow musicians were constantly amazed as Carter revealed the layers of his talent.

Pressed by economics, Carter disbanded in 1934, leaving for Europe in 1935. He played with Willie Lewis's band for about eight months in Paris, then became a staff arranger for the British Broadcasting Corporation in London, which he used as a home base for successful tours throughout Europe before returning to New York in 1938. With a new big band he took up residence at the Savoy Ballroom for nearly three years, with intermittent tours both locally and out of town, following which he worked with smaller groups. One of these groups included the young trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie. Other musicians in Carter's groups from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s included trumpeter-arranger Neal Hefti, drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, trombonists J. J. Johnson and Al Grey, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Lucky Thompson, and trumpeter Miles Davis, all of whom became leading voices when the Bebop movement elbowed its way to prominence.

Beginning in about 1946, Carter settled in Hollywood, where in 1943 he had written and arranged music for the film, Stormy Weather . Work on other films soon followed, including: The Gang's All Here , Thousands Cheer , Love Happy , The Gene Krupa Story , The Five Pennies , A View from Pompey's Head , and The Snows of Kilimanjaro . In the latter two Carter performed acting roles as well. Dating to 1958, television scoring commanded most of Carter's attention as he produced music for series such as "M Squad," "It Takes a Thief," "Bob Hope Presents," "The Chrysler Theater," and the Alfred Hitchcock series. Concurrently, he wrote arrangements and sometimes conducted for several vocalists, including Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae. Carter also used his considerable influence to help bring about the 1953 merging of the segregated black and white musicians' unions into an integrated Local 47.

Of Carter's solo playing Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker : "To be sure, Carter was the most admired alto saxophonist of the thirties, but that was hardly surprising. Johnny Hodges didn't draw himself to his full height until 1940. . . . [Carter's 1976] alto-saxophone playing has grown even statelier. The joyous declamatory tone has broadened, and the melodic lines have become longer and more complex." In his 1989 second volume on the history of jazz, The Swing Era , Gunther Schuller describes Carter's 1930 clarinet work (on "Dee Blues"): "Carter's clarinet solos--enclosing the performance at either end like the covers of a book--are quite extraordinary. His tone is full and firm with a hue much like that of an A clarinet, and with a slightly edgy thrust in the middle and upper range, taking on the color of both a trumpet and an alto saxophone. In this manner Carter was almost able to match the awesome majesty of [Coleman] Hawkins in his brief sweeping 'gliding' solo. Creatively both clarinet solos are superior examples of Carter's effortless control of ideas, his always cogent sense of direction." Though he has played the trumpet only sporadically through the years, several beautiful records attest to Carter's mastery of that instrument, including "Once upon a Time," "Stardust," and "I Surrender Dear," which became a Carter showpiece. The sustained demand for Carter as a writer-arranger speaks to his standing in these disciplines.

The absence of commercial acceptance of Carter's various large and small bands has caused many musicians and critics to wonder just what is required to achieve this kind of success. While Carter has continued to assimilate and originate new concepts and fresh sounds, he has never sacrificed musicianship for faddish effects. Some have argued that Carter's extravagant versatility in itself is a problem in that the listening public finds difficulty in attaching a label, a positive identity, to Carter. Others have claimed that the great Carter facility that allows all his feats to seem so polished and effortless appears to rob his playing and writing of passion. In his 1989 book, Schuller concludes his discussion of Carter in this way: "As one hears the late [most recent] Benny Carter and hears the tremendous authority--and yes, even passion--with which he discharges a wide range of assignments, one is tempted to conclude that Benny Carter, the restless ever-searching seeker, has finally found his rightful place (or two) in the sun. His playing as well as his composing and arranging now have a conviction, an inevitableness, and above all a reaching out to an audience, whatever audience or audiences--and there are several--in a way that he somehow could never attain earlier."

by Robert Dupuis

Benny Carter's Career

Sideman in Wilberforce University's "Collegians," 1925-26; Sideman with bands of Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Johnson, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, McKinney's Cotten Pickers, 1926-33; Arranger/composer for Benny Goodman, Count Basie and others, 1927-88; Arranger/composer for big swing bands, Hollywood films, and television programs, 1927-89; Leader of orchestras and small bands, 1928-86; Staff arranger, British Broadcasting Corp., London, 1936-37; Arranger for vocalists Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae, 1955-75; Visiting artist/lecturer/professor, 1970s; Conductor for Concert and Lecture Tour of the Middle East, U.S. State Department, 1975.

Benny Carter's Awards

Grammy Award for arrangement of "Busted," by Ray Charles, 1963; Award from Academie du Disque, France, for The King , 1976; Received Golden Score Award from American Society of Music Arrangers, 1980.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 12, 2003: Carter dies on July 12, 2003, in California, after being hospitalized with bronchitis and other ailments. He was 95. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, July 14, 2003; Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2003, p. B9.

Further Reading



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