Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Benny Carter: A Tribute

Benny Carter, my main inspiration on the saxophone, passed away in 2003 at the age of 96.  He left behind one of the richest legacies of music in the history of jazz, as a musician, composer and arranger.  He was one of the original alto sax stylists, along with Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith.  His innovations in arranging for big bands, particularly the reed section, set the standard for all bands that followed.  Many of his compositions are standards in the repertoire of many singers and players.  As the music evolved, so did Benny, but never sacrificing his own sound and basic style.   He remained fresh as he absorbed the innovations of a later generation while being their elder statesman and staying true to himself.

I first met Benny Carter in 1977 when he had a week long engagement at Sweet Basil in New York City.  I went to every one of those shows.  After the first set, I introduced myself and then told him that he was my main influence on the alto sax.  He was so humble about it, thanking me and almost acting surprised.   I don't think he was always aware of just how influential a musician he was.  Whenever I met with him, he was gracious and articulate, a real gentleman, and I would have the privilege of seeing him and talking to him many times until his death. Seeing him play and having discussions with him was always a lesson, not only in music, but in being a human being.

My love of Benny Carter and his music began when I first heard his recording Further Definitions.
Not only did it have a stellar lineup, consisting of Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods, Jo Jones, Dick Katz, Jimmy Garrison and John Collins, but to me it was also a recording that epitomized what the essence of jazz was as far as I was concerned.  It swung hard, all the musicians played perfect solos, especially Benny, and the arrangements were tight.  For me, this is on my personal list of the greatest recordings in the history of jazz, right up there with Kind Of Blue and Giant Steps.  I play this recording every single day and never tire of it.  It has the kind of energy and swing that just doesn't quit.


Benny Carter outlived so many of the musicians that followed him, having as career that lasted almost 80 years.  Yet, despite the innovations and contributions to jazz, for many years he never achieved the level of success of many of his contemporaries or players of later generations.   He was hardly known by the public at large, but to musicians, it was another matter.  Benny's bands were always considered musicians bands.  If you made the cut in his band, you made it.  This is why among musicians, when they were handing out titles like, the Duke, The Count and The Pres, Benny was named The King. 

Among the musicians that got their start with Benny were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon and Max Roach.  Dizzy Gillespie, in his autobiography "To Be Or Not To Bop", stated that aside from playing with Charlie Parker, playing with Benny Carter was the greatest musical experience of his life.  Dizzy would also play as a guest on several of his later recordings.  Miles Davis said, "Benny Carter is a whole musical education in himself". Cannonball Adderley stated "Benny Carter was one of the first virtuosos,  but he makes it look so easy".  In fact, in Cannonball Adderley's recording of "Stars Fell On Alabama", his opening phrase is a nod to Benny Carter's style. When Cannonball Adderley died, Benny played at his memorial.  I don't think there was a musician out there that didn't respect Benny Carter.

Although the alto saxophone was the instrument Benny Carter was most known for, he could also play trumpet, clarinet and trombone, as well as the other saxophones.  Another statement by Dizzy Gillespie in his autobiography was "Benny was often the best trumpeter in his band". As a composer, many of his tunes were and are played by many bands and soloists.  His most famous being "When Lights Are Low", which was famously covered by Miles Davis, who forgot the bridge and made up another one.  He later recorded it again with the right bridge.

Benny Carter was instrumental(no pun intended) in integrating the musician's union.  He fought to have the best players in his band regardless of race.  Benny himself said that he didn't care about a musician's color, only about his music.  As an arranger, he not only arranged for his own bands, but also arranged for the bands of Gene Krupa and Count Basie, and for singers like Dakota Staton.  His original configuration of the reed section of a band has been the standard since he first wrote for them. Benny was also a pioneer in writing jazz scores for movies.  Among them, Stormy Weather and A Man Called Adam.  He also wrote the score for the TV show M Squad starring Lee Marvin.

Benny Carter's legacy as a musician, composer and arranger is one that many others would find hard or almost impossible to equal.  It is rich and spans literally the whole history of jazz.  It is a legacy that will last far beyond the passing of many generations.  I was glad to have known him, and I am glad that he left so much behind for me to cherish.

Click on the links below to see videos of Benny Carter! The first is a conversation with Benny and Mel Martin about Benny's life in music, and the second is a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977 with Ray Bryant on piano, Jimmy Smith on drums and Neils Pedersen on bass.  Benny also plays a trumpet solo on this one.



1 comment:

  1. Fantastico !!! love jazz alto sax and Monsieur B. Carter