Friday, July 1, 2016

Benny Carter: An Appreciation

Very few musicians in the history of jazz have had such a long and varied career as did Lester Bennett "Benny" Carter.  He emerged during jazz' early years, would become one of the triumvirate of big band alto sax stylists, the other two being Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith, wrote big band arrangements that would define the sound and instrumentation of the modern big band and would go on to be the elder statesman of jazz until his death in 2003 at the age of 96, a career spanning over 80 years.

Benny Carter was born in New York City in 1907 in San Juan Hill, the area that is now Lincoln Square and Lincoln Center.  He received his first music lessons on piano from his mother when he was a boy.  His cousin was the well known jazz trumpeter Cuban Bennett, and from that his first instrument of choice would be the trumpet, an instrument that he played even after achieving his fame and reputation on the alto saxophone.  When he moved to Harlem, he lived down the street from Bubber Miley, Duke Ellington's trumpeter at the time.  He eventually put down the trumpet and picked up the saxophone when he found he couldn't play it as quickly as he wanted to.  He started out on the C-Melody saxophone, having been inspired by Frankie Trumbauer, famous for his association and recordings with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke.  He eventually switched to alto, and by the time he was 15, was already playing professionally with the likes of Rex Stewart, Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

He made his first recordings in 1928 with Charlie Johnson's Orchestra, formed his own band a year later, then went on to play with Fletcher Henderson in 1930-31, becoming the band's chief arranger.  At this time he also led the Detroit based McKinney's Cotton Pickers, then returned to New York in 1932 to start his own band.  This band would include legends like Leon "Chu" Berry, Sid Catlett, Dicky Wells and Teddy Wilson.  In fact, Benny's bands would be the launching pad for many other jazz greats.  It was always said that if you made the cut in Benny's band, you would make it anywhere.  Besides the aforementioned players, others who would get their start in a Benny Carter led band would be Dizzy Gillespie, who wrote Night In Tunisia while with Benny, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Art Pepper, Max Roach, to name just a few. 

In 1935, Benny Carter moved to Europe to record with Willie Lewis' Orchestra and also became staff arranger for the BBC.  He would travel around Europe and play with the leading musicians in Scandinavia, Holland and France.  In Paris, he made some memorable recordings with Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins, with two of the numbers, "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Crazy Rhythm" reprised in New York City with Hawkins on his classic recording "Further Definitions" in 1961.  After returning to the US prior to the outbreak of WWII, he moved to Los Angeles, and besides forming bands out there, also arranged and composed for Hollywood films.  He was also instrumental in integrating the music unions, enabling black players to receive the same scale.

The musicians that Benny has played with and who have played for him is virtually the Who's Who of the history of jazz.  The respect that he garnered from other musicians earned him the title of "The King", and it was a well earned one.  Here are just some of the things that other greats have said about Benny Carter. 

"The problems 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" -Duke Ellington

"You got Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and my man, The Earl of Hines, right?  Well, Benny's right up there with all them cats. Everyone that knows who he is calls him "King".  He is a king" -Louis Armstrong

"Everybody ought to listen to Benny Carter.  He is a whole musical education" -Miles Davis

"He can play as many notes as anyone, but he makes it all look so easy" -Cannonball Adderley

Benny Carter on himself:
"In all honesty, I think I just played what I felt 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."

Benny retired from performing in 1997, mainly because he felt that due to his declining health, he wouldn't be able to maintain the high standards he set for himself.   On July 12, 2003, Benny Carter passed away, but left behind a musical legacy that is unmatched in the history of jazz. 

I first met Benny Carter in 1979, when he came to New York after resuming doing live performances after a long layoff.  He was my main influence on the saxophone, and when I had the chance to tell him so personally, he was humble and gracious about it.  After that, he would be in New York 2 to 3 times a year to perform, and I would be at every show.  Eventually, he would find the time to sit with me for an hour or two when he was in town, and as Miles Davis said, "he is a whole musical education".  We didn't have formal music lessons.  I only played for him once, and what I played was copped from his solo from "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set" on Further Definitions.  He smiled and said he liked my sound.  Hearing that really rendered me speechless.  Maybe he was just being kind, I don't know, but in any case, the time spent with him will always be one of my fondest memories.

Here is Benny Carter and Mel Martin discussing Benny Carter's life in music

Benny Carter in action



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