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Benny Carter (1907-2003)

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As a composer and lyricist, Benny Carter's songs run the gamut from the novelty tune to the serious composition.
Submitted on behalf of Michael Anthony

During 2003 we lost the last survivors of a hardy and influential generation. They were men and women who were born at the turn of the last century. They influenced the culture of the 20th Century. These tireless artists via the new mediums that were available to them (radio, motion pictures and television) changed how we laughed (Bob Hope), how we viewed women (Katharine Hepburn), how we heard music (Benny Carter) and even how we celebrated this new American "pop culture" (Al Hirschfeld).

While all of these artists influenced many, they had various degrees of notoriety. Bob Hope was legendary for his ability to sniff out an audience. Katharine Hepburn at times received more attention than she wanted. Al Hirschfeld developed a cult following from his distinctive caricatures made in his brownstone apartment in New York. Then there was Benny Carter, who traveled the world showcasing the jazz music that he helped turn into a viable and respected art form via his influential arrangements, compositions, and dignified playing. He was known as "The King" within the jazz community, but was hardly known outside his field.

Carter never sought the limelight and through sheer talent and not ego, he gained the highest compliments from the jazz elite - his peers. "The problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he," said Duke Ellington in 1943. Louis Armstrong simply said "He is a king!" These quotes coming from the most celebrated jazz musicians of all-time speak volumes about the contributions of Benny Carter - a mostly self-taught musician.

Born in New York in 1907, Carter was surrounded by music. His mother played piano and his cousin was noted trumpeter Cuban Bennett. There were also musicians who lived in the vicinity, including neighbor Bubber Miley, who was in Duke Ellington's orchestra. The passionate young Carter initially tackled the trumpet, then the C-melody saxophone, alto saxophone and later the clarinet. He would master the alto saxophone and make it his instrument of choice, however his capability on the trumpet and even the clarinet were quite formidable. He was a master musician, a perfectionist who did not give up until he gave it his all.

After five years of haunting the Harlem night spots and gaining invaluable experience, Benny Carter joined Charlie Johnson's Orchestra based at Small's Paradise in Harlem and made his first recordings in 1928. During those sessions he made two arrangements for the band - yet another self-taught talent. That same year he replaced the legendary Don Redman as chief arranger for Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. The charts that came out of Henderson's band are arguably the most influential of the big band era.

Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and others would use Benny Carter arrangements during their heyday. These arrangements stem from not only his days with Henderson during the '20s and '30s, but also as a freelance arranger during the decades that followed.

His distinctive arrangements for the sax section of an orchestra remains today as captivating as they were 60 to 70 years ago. A quartet or more of both alto and tenor saxophones, together creating a rich earthy sound that is ageless. If an orchestra did not use a Carter arrangement, they were certainly influenced by them. The sound can be heard through the swing, bebop, cool era and beyond.

While Benny Carter led his own orchestra from 1932-34, 1938-41 and then again from 1942-46 his band was not a great success commercially, probably due to the refinement of the music. However, future jazz notables were schooled in Carter's band. There was Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, Sid Catlett, J.C. Higginbotham, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach and Art Pepper. Even Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke were in his 1941 sextet. These artists not only went on to define the styles they became famous for, but in some cases they even created these different styles of jazz music. "Everybody ought to listen to Benny. He's a whole musical education," said Miles Davis in 1961.

Though Benny Carter would go on to lead groups in various settings through the '90s, later hiring musicians who were more than 50 years his junior, he preferred to stay a creative force in the background. He was hired as the chief arranger for the BBC Orchestra in Great Britain in 1935, and was key in spreading jazz music throughout Europe. He recorded with Django Reinhardt in 1938 and also formed the first international, interracial big band in Holland.


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