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Artist Profiles

Benny Carter (1907-2003)

By Published: October 28, 2003
Carter went to Hollywood in 1942 and began to score motion pictures and later television shows. His first major motion picture was Stormy Weather in 1943. He arranged and led a big band dance sequence for the 1951 classic, An American in Paris. In 1966 he scored A Man Called Adam, which not only featured his band, but also Louis Armstrong, Mel Torm', and in the starring role Sammy Davis, Jr. The movie also produced the standard, "All That Jazz". Carter's television credits include M Squad, which starred Lee Marvin and the popular Chrysler Theater program of the '50s. Quincy Jones, who went on to score dozens of motion pictures and television shows, credits Carter for quietly opening up the door for African-Americans in Hollywood.

As a composer and lyricist, Benny Carter's songs run the gamut from the novelty tune to the serious composition. A number of his songs have become popular standards, including "When Lights Are Low" (1936), "Only Trust Your Heart" (1964), and "The Cow, Cow Boogie" (1942), which became the first million selling single for the struggling Capitol Records label courtesy of singer Ella Mae Morse. Other vocalists to record Carter's songs have included Anita O'Day, Peggy Lee, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall and Tony Bennett.

In fact, during the '50s and '60s Benny Carter would arrange and lead orchestras for many of the great vocalists, once again remaining in the background. This freelance work would keep him based mainly in his new home state of California. His famous arrangements for saxophones were effectively used on recordings for Lou Rawls ("If It's The Last Thing I Do"), Jo Stafford ("Whatcha Know Joe") and Pearl Bailey ("Let's Take The Long Way Home").

Jazz impresario Norman Granz would call on Carter for both his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours and recording sessions for his various labels, including Verve, during this same period. He would perform with the likes of Papa Jo Jones, Ray Brown, Louie Bellson, Don Abney, Roy Eldridge and began a long relationship with pianist Oscar Peterson, who he continued to work with into the '90s. "He is a stoic jazz musician'One of the stabilizers in the whole medium," said Peterson of Carter in 2001.

During the '50s and '60s Carter would record a few well received albums including Aspects/Jazz Calendar, a big band concept album for United Artists in 1958 that featured both classic and original compositions celebrating the months of the year. Another celebrated album is Further Definitions (Impulse, 1961) featuring an octet. Joining Benny Carter on alto sax was friend and long time admirer, Phil Woods. The two tenors were Charlie Rouse and Coleman Hawkins. Once again Carter's quartet of saxophones were in place. The result was a controlled and rich session of harmonic and solo playing. Carter's arrangement of the jazz evergreen "Body & Soul" remains a stand out performance. The album was so well received that five years later the group reunited for Additions to Further Definitions.

It was during the '70s, when most musicians of Carter's era were slowing down, that he decided to pick up the pace. Carter not only began to record with more frequency (Wonderland; The King; Carter/Gillespie, Inc.) but he also began to tour around the world through the Middle East, Europe and most notably Japan (Live And Well In Japan). He also began conducting seminars, workshops and teaching music at Princeton University for a time, where he was awarded an honorary degree in 1974.

The '80s and '90s saw much of the same. In fact, Carter spent his 90th birthday in 1997 performing in Oslo, Norway. He also released no fewer than 20 recordings during this late period of his career, including the well received Songbook, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. These discs, recorded in 1995 and released on Music Masters during the following two years, showcased a still vital and very relevant Benny Carter who, at age 88, was featuring new compositions and lyrics mixed with his earlier jazz standards. "My good old days are here and now," Carter once said. He even managed to assist in the formation of Evening Star Records, with Ed Berger his biographer, in 1993.

Benny Carter retired from both recording and performing in 1998, 70 years after his first recording date with Charlie Johnson's Orchestra and five more since the time he first got onto a band stand in one of those Harlem night spots. While there is so much to acknowledge of a life well lived, it will be those rich melodic and influential tones from Carter's alto saxophone that will remain a joy for all of us to hear, no matter your decade of choice. Long Live 'The King'.


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