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Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs

Jerry D'Souza By

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Benny Carter
Symphony in Riffs
Rhapsody Films
2008

Benny Carter was a man of many parts. He played the trumpet and saxophone, he scored music for films and television, he was an educator, and he was an arranger in a class of his own. Carter was born in 1907, and in commemoration of his 100th birth anniversary, Rhapsody Films has re-released Symphony in Riffs. Though the original was released in 1989, the current version goes past that date into the 90s. It is a fitting document of an outstanding talent.

Director Harrison Engle deftly blends archival footage with contemporary interviews and concerts. The documentary details Carter's life and travels, dovetailing his childhood in Harlem, his early performances, his stay in Europe and the adulation of his fans. It moves on to his later recordings and the numerous awards he won and is augmented with an extensive photo gallery along with an informative appreciation from Ed Berger. The film was narrated by the late actor Burt Lancaster.

Early on, Carter reminisces about the first trumpet he purchased from a pawn shop, paying off the $33 price at a dollar a week. The inspiration for the horn was Ellington trumpeter Bubber Miley, who let the young Carter carry the star's trumpet to the subway. When fame did not come as quickly as expected, Carter next got himself a C Melody saxophone.

Carter was elected to lead his first band in 1928, his promotional sign reading "Bennie Carter's Swing Play Boys." The musicians respected his challenging music and stayed with him even if the pay was less than what other band leaders were offering.

In the 1930s Carter went to Europe. Sometime in the spring of 1937, as Leonard Feather tells us, Carter received an offer to take a 12-piece orchestra to Holland. He put together the best musicians he could find: some were English, some Scottish, and some West Indian. It was the first international, inter-racial orchestra to play jazz anywhere.

Carter receives several tributes and accolades from music luminaries. Andre Previn calls him the most sophisticated of jazz composers, as Carter's music so eloquently testifies. Stanley Jordan relates how Carter asked him to come by and play without having heard Jordan. Carter was open to new talent, which he continued to nurture in his role as an educator.

Carter played and composed into his 90s. He did not let life pass by without filling it with his love for jazz. And by the time he passed on, he had left behind a rich legacy.


Featuring: Lena Horne; Quincy Jones; Dizzy Gillespie; Andre Previn; Leonard feather; Clark Terry, Ella Fitzgerald; Stanley Jordan; David Sanborn; Ella Mae Morse.

Production Notes: 58 minutes.

Photo gallery; Appreciation by Ed Berger

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