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Benny Carter - Legendary Saxophonist, composer - Arranger, Bandleader

Updated: Jan 16

Bennett Lester “Benny” Carter, along with Johnny Hodges, defined the way the alto saxophone should be played throughout the swing era - from the late 1920s until Charlie Parker became the all-pervasive influence on a new generation.


Of the two, Hodges was more blues drenched. His studies with Sidney Bechet are clearly discernible in every note he played. His sensuous approach to ballads had all the operatic influences of his teacher.

Carter had something different. He was a musical architect; building elegant and sophisticated structures on secure harmonic foundations. His sound was strong, beautifully rich, yet subtly deployed. His use of time was always swinging and precise, but he played wittily with the meter, sometimes pulling ahead and sometimes laying back, varying dynamics and attack to point up ideas. He retained this distinctive style throughout his life, refining and improving, in a remarkably consistent career that extended over eight decades.

This definitive alto style would alone have ensured a place in jazz history, but Carter was also one of the most versatile of all jazz musicians. He played superb tenor, clarinet and trumpet, and could turn his hand to trombone and piano. He also recorded several vocals over the years, which are probably best described as charming.

Carter’s phenomenal range as an instrumentalist contributed to his work as an arranger. He wrote for all the great black bands of the Swing Era, and had a shaping influence on Swing instrumentation and arranging that is matched only by Ellington and Don Redman. Not only the style of writing (blocks, call and response, counterpoint, etc) but even the big band instrumentation now considered “traditional” (the balance of saxes, brass, and rhythm) is historically inconceivable without the work of Redman and Carter.

Benny Carter was born on August 7th 1907 in the San Juan district of New York, also known as “The Jungle” or “Hell’s Kitchen”. Benny, always suave and sophisticated in later life, nevertheless remained deep down a “tough guy” in some of the best senses of the word. He was, according to Jimmy Rowles, the only man who could quieten a drunken Ben Webster with a single command. The quiet authority of his musicianship extended to all his dealings.

Carter’s first step into the music business was to buy a trumpet, an instrument he struggled with and quickly returned. “I found I couldn’t play it. I thought I was going to be an instant Bubber Miley. He lived around the corner and I admired him very much.”

The music shop owner then pointed him in the direction of a C melody saxophone and, under the influence of Frankie Trumbauer records, he was soon proficient enough to begin subbing around the Harlem nightspots for bandleaders including Billy Paige and Earl Hines.

The switch to alto came soon after and he refined his skills with work as a sideman, including two weeks with Duke Ellington, his recording debut with Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, and a stint with the Wilberforce Collegians, run by Fletcher Henderson’s brother Horace. In fact Carter had enrolled at the college with the idea of studying theology but was distracted into the band.

In quick succession, he played alto and wrote notable arrangements for Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb, finally becoming the musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1931, replacing Don Redman.

Possibly unimpressed with how his scores were being played by a band not at its best, but definitely tired of constant touring, Carter settled back in New York and devoted himself to writing for the top bands of the day. Duke Ellington, Teddy Hill, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Fletcher and Horace Henderson and Cab Calloway all benefited.

Between 1932-34 Carter led his own band in New York. The music was excellent with outstanding players including Chu Berry, Shad Collins and Sid Catlett, but real commercial success eluded him. John Hammond, who was very helpful in setting up recordings for the band, suggested, rather harshly, that this was because Carter “Was more interested in displaying his versatility than in making great music.” Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the public has always struggled with the idea of multi-talent, finding it easier to latch onto musicians who excel at one thing alone.

In 1933, Spike Hughes, a multi-faceted British musician who had recorded for Decca with his bands the Decca-dents and Three Blind Mice, travelled to New York. In what he saw as the culmination of his career, he recorded 14 tracks with an ensemble made up of members of the Benny Carter and Luis Russell groups plus Coleman Hawkins and Henry “Red’ Allen from Fletcher Henderson. Like the John Hammond sessions, these records were intended for release in the U.K. and not initially for the American market.

Carter had recorded under the name The Chocolate Dandies in 1930, with Coleman Hawkins and Jimmy Harrison and did so again in 1933 with Max Kaminsky, Chu Berry and Teddy Wilson. Comparison of these two excellent sessions shows how rapidly swing was developing. On the latter sessions Carter had returned to the trumpet, playing superbly and alternating with alto with apparent ease.

The Benny Carter and his Orchestra sessions of 1933-34 show a real culmination of his talents. Carter had become a masterful composer and arranger. “Lonesome Nights’ and “Symphony in Riffs” feature some gorgeous saxophone scoring and “Dream Lullaby” is a good example of his woody Chalumeau clarinet playing.

Work, however, was not plentiful. There was much rehearsal but never a stable line-up. Carter’s sidemen had a keen sense of loyalty but inevitably tended to drift to better paying jobs. Carter disbanded in 1934 and, after a short stint with Willie Bryant’s band, accepted an offer to join American altoist Willie Lewis at the Chez Florence nightclub in Paris.

In March 1936, on the recommendation of Spike Hughes and Leonard Feather, Carter was invited to become a staff arranger for Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra. This post required between three and six new arrangements a week- quite a workload even for a man of his talents. The conditions of his work permit did not allow him to give public performances or broadcast but, fortunately, he was allowed to make records. Leonard Feather enthusiastically set up the first of several recording dates for large and small ensembles.

The top British players were assembled. Various lineups included Tommy McQuater and Duncan Whyte on trumpets, Ted Heath on trombone, “Poggy” Pogson, Freddy Gardener, Andy McDevitt and Buddy Featherstonehaugh on reeds and George Elrick on drums.

Gunther Schuller has dismissed the European recordings saying they “did not add much of substance to Carter’s output.” However these are swinging sessions with snappy ensembles and some excellent soloing. “Waltzing the Blues” can claim to be the first jazz in three-four. “Nightfall”, recorded six months before Lester Young’s recording debut

features Benny on tenor in a beautifully refined solo that gives a cooler alternative to the Hawkins style of the time. He clearly could have built a career on this instrument alone and, just as Lester’s tenor playing is acknowledged as a vital precursor to Parker’s alto, Carter’s cool and elegant style on both horns was surely just as important to the development of Lester.

One small band on the London sessions featured visiting Americans Gene Rodgers and guitarist Bernard Addison with a vocal by Elizabeth Welch. It was the first recording of the most famous of Carter’s compositions “When Lights Are Low”.

Though we now look back on Carter’s presence in London as an immense asset, work permit restrictions then only allowed him residence for a few months at a time so he decamped to Hilversum and Copenhagen for the summer of 1936, performing and recording extensively.

Returning to London in 1937, he was finally given permission to perform in public. This was at a spectacularly successful Melody Maker sponsored concert at the London Hippodrome.

The recordings made by the musicians from this concert in the next couple of days are amongst the best that Carter recorded with non-American musicians. Buddy Featherstonehaugh on tenor, Andy McDevitt on clarinet and Tommy McQuater on trumpet are all on sparkling form and Freddy Gardener gets a brief but effective solo. The tunes include “Gin and Jive” and a sax section feature “I’m In The Mood For Swing”.

Carter left London in March 1937 and travelled for two years to Holland (recording with the Ramblers), Belgium, Scandinavia and France (recording several sides there with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt including the classic “Crazy Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose”) before returning to the U.S.A in 1938.

In New York, he found that the Swing Era was at its height, with a number of bands reaping huge rewards from the music he had pioneered a decade earlier. He put together another big band. There was a lot of competition and Carter had been away a long time. Despite a very elegant, musical and swinging group, the prestigious gigs and essential network radio time eluded him. By 1941 he had cut down to a septet.

Yet Carter was still at the forefront of the development of jazz. His band featured Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Kenny Clarke on drums, still playing lots of Carter’s music, but also some incipient be-bop. Like Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington, Carter always encouraged new developments and incorporated fresh ideas into his playing and writing without ever losing his overall concept.

There were still a few big band sessions recorded over the next four years but when he was offered a job writing for Twentieth Century Fox films, Carter jumped at the chance, writing the music for “Stormy Weather” in 1943 and moving to Hollywood permanently in 1945. For the next forty years he wrote scores for films including “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “The Five Pennies” and “Buck and the Preacher” as well as TV music for series such as “Ironside”, “M-Squad” and “Bob Hope Presents”.

He continued to play jazz in the evenings and recorded some superb tracks in 1946-47 with Arnold Ross and Sonny White on piano. Another outstanding session puts Benny in a trio setting with Jo Jones and Teddy Wilson. Inexplicably not released for our decades, this is some of the best Carter on record. He is positively inspired by the company and creates brilliant variations on a series of standards.

The Verve Charlie Parker jam session of 1952, which features Carter and Hodges side by side with the be-bop pioneer, is an essential album for students of the alto saxophone. The three styles have more in common than might at first be supposed- a fact highlighted on “Funky Blues”, where they all dig in for some earthy playing.

It was always challenging for a horn player to play with such a piano virtuoso as Art Tatum, a great solo player with a terrifyingly detailed harmonic palette who could very much dominate the proceedings. But in the sessions of 1954 with Tatum, and Louie Bellson on brushes throughout, Carter finds the spaces and gives a brilliantly controlled and undaunted performance, including a version of his own 30s composition “Hands Across The Table”.

The “Jazz Giant” album of 1957, teaming the altoist with Ben Webster, Frank Rossolino and with Andre Previn taking the piano chair from Jimmy Rowles on some tracks is another gem, with superb playing all round.

“Further Definitions in 1961 allowed Carter and Coleman Hawkins to re-visit their triumphs on “Crazy Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose” in a saxophone section with Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse. In the same year Carter wrote “The Kansas City Suite” for the Count Basie Orchestra and received five star reviews.

Throughout the 1960s Carter was not playing his horns much due to very heavy writing commitments. In the 1970s he signed with Norman Granz for Pablo records and the first release “The King” (with Milt Jackson, Joe Pass and Tommy Flanagan) shows his powers on alto had not diminished in the slightest.

Tours of Europe and Japan followed and he returned to London in 1985 and Glasgow in 1987, where, as composer in residence for the Jazz Festival, he composed and arranged five completely new pieces for full big band, in as many days. These charts are as fresh and exciting as anything Carter wrote throughout his career: this from an eighty-year-old man who had taken the trouble to memorize the names of all the band members. One was already familiar to him however, as this occasion saw his reunion with Tommy McQuater who had starred on the London recordings of the 30s.

Arranger and drummer Ken Mathieson adapted these pieces for smaller band from the original scores and I was lucky enough to be involved with recording them. The craftsmanship and elegance of the charts make them a joy to play.

In the 1980s, Carter was invited to give some seminars at Princeton University which started him on a new career as teacher and lecturer: and who could have a more comprehensive and insightful view of the development of jazz than Benny Carter? Awards and honours were showered on him in later life; his time as elder statesman was lengthier than many jazz careers.

But he remained as modest as ever, and was committed to his work rather than reminiscence: “At my age I realise that my most precious possession is time and I’ve got too much unfinished work to do to spend even a minute talking about myself.”

Asked about the secret of still living a hectic schedule and performing at his peak in his late 80s Carter’s answer should be noted by all jazz promoters; “Always travel and stay first Class.”

Benny Carter still did not consider himself to have retired when he died from complications from bronchitis on July 12th 2003

He left a legacy of beautiful tunes: “When Lights Are Low”,” Malibu”, “A Walkin’ Thing”, “How Can You Lose?”, “Easy Money”, “Green Wine”, “Blue star”, and “ I’m Left With The Blues In My Heart” are all gems and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

It has been claimed that he is the only major musician to have recorded in eight different decades.

In summing up his own musical life he said: “ In all honesty, I think I just played what I thought was right for me. I think I would have done the same thing even if I’d been born later when Charlie Parker was influencing everybody. The truth is I never gave it much thought. I just played what I had to play.”

Alan Barnes

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