Carter, Benny (actually, Bennett Lester; aka “The King”)

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Carter, Benny (actually, Bennett Lester; aka “The King”)

legendary, long-careered jazz alto and tenor saxophonist, trumpeter, clarinetist, bandleader, arranger, composer, trombonist, pianist, clarinetist; b. N.Y., Aug. 8, 1907. His father, Norell Carter (b. in or near Clarksburg, W. Va., e. 1877), a janitor and later a postal clerk, was a self-taught guitarist, his mother Sadie Bennett (b. Richmond, Va., c. 1877; d. N.Y. 1926) played piano and organ. He had two older sisters, Edna (b. c. 1900) and Alice (b. c. 1904). When he was perhaps one year old, the family moved to the San Juan Hill area of Manhattan. He sang in the choir at an Episcopal church. On July 4, 1917 or 1918, he accidentally shot a girl in the back with a BB gun and was sent to a reformatory for a few weeks, after which his mother sent him to live for a year or two with her relatives near Pittsburgh. He then returned to school in N.Y.; he was later expelled for punching a teacher who called him a “nigger.” Carter studied piano with his mother from age ten, then with a neighborhood teacher. Inspired by his cousin, Theodore “Cuban” Bennett, an accomplished trumpet player, he saved up for eight months and at age 13 paid $33 for a second-hand trumpet; after one weekend of abortive blowing, he returned to the shop and after some difficulty got the owner to exchange it for a saxophone on the advice of local musician Harold Proctor. He took lessons from Arthur Reeves (a particular inspiration), and also taught himself from books.

By age 15, Carter was sitting in at Harlem night spots, despite parental objections. When his family moved to Harlem in 1923, he became even more involved in the jazz scene. Probably his first regular paying job was in 1923 when Miley invited him to sub for Ben Whittet at John O’Connors’ Club in Harlem. He joined June Clark’s Band (August 1924) and switched to alto sax. Soon afterwards, he worked with Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators at the Capitol, N.Y.; they quickly disbanded and Benny played with Lois Deppe’s Ser-enaders, then on baritone with Earl Hines at the Grape Arbor in Pittsburgh (late 1924). He also worked with Willie “the Lion” Smith in a trio and sat in with William (later Count) Basie. Carter began to teach himself composition and arranging by taking published stock arrangements and studying the parts spread out on the floor without a score. Initially, he wrote without a score as well. In summer 1925 he met Rosa Lee Jackson and they were married a few weeks later; she died of pneumonia in 1928. In 1925 he went to Wilberforce Coll., Ohio, to join Horace Henderson’s (Wilberforce) Collegians (he never enrolled there despite what has often been stated). He left Henderson in 1926 and during that summer worked with Billy Fowler’s Band in Baltimore and N.Y. After a brief stint with James P. Johnson, he worked two weeks in Duke Ellington’s Band, then spent a short spell with Fletcher Henderson, producing his first recorded arrangement, “P.D.Q. Blues,” written in 1927, the same year he published his first composition, “Nobody Knows,” co-written with Fats Waller. Carter then spent over a year with Charlie Johnson, with whom he made his first surviving recordings (1928), including two of his arrangements (”Charleston is the Best Dance After All”). He rejoined Horace Henderson in Detroit, then toured briefly with Fletcher Henderson (autumn 1928) before forming his own band (late 1928) in N.Y. and on tour. He worked again with Fletcher Henderson (from January 1930), writing many arrangements. Carter joined Chick Webb (c. March 1931) and left during summer 1931 to spend a year as the musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. From this period onward, he regularly doubled on trumpet. While working with McKinney, he also played dates with Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson.

Carter began rehearsing his own band in the summer of 1932, with Dicky Wells, Chu Berry, and Sid Catlett (Teddy Wilson joined in 1933); he led this band in N.Y. (from c. September 1932), including benefits for the Scottsboro Nine defense fund on Oct. 7, 1932 and March 8, 1933, touring, and local residencies at Lafayette Theatre and Savoy Ballroom. In January 1934, his band opened the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He recorded with Fletcher Henderson (September 1934), and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Carter disbanded his group and worked on trumpet with Willie Bryant (spring 1935), and then with Charlie Barnet, before receiving an invitation to Europe. After emigration delays, Carter joined Willie Lewis’s Band in Paris (summer 1935). At Leonard Feather’s suggestion, he took an appointment as staff arranger for the radio BBC Dance Orch. (1936) in London. He frequently toured Europe, playing Scandinavia (autumn 1936), Amsterdam (March 1937), France, and led the first International (and interracial) Band at Scheveningen, Holland (summer 1937); he led a band at Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris before returning to the U.S. in May 1938. He organized his own big band (November 1938), which was frequently resident at the Savoy Ballroom, N.Y. (March 1939-January 1941). In the fall of 1941, he led a sextet that included Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke and performed at clubs on 52nd Street. During this period, his arrangements were featured on recordings by Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, and Tommy Dorsey; his well known “When Lights Are Low” was first recorded in London with singer Elizabeth Welch (1936), then done as an instrumental by Lionel Hampton (1939).

In February 1942 Carter re-formed a big band; on tour in Hollywood, he decided to settle in the L.A. area, where he has lived ever since. He played on and helped to orchestrate the soundtrack of Stormy Weather (1943), leading to other soundtrack work; he was one of the first African-Americans to work in this area. Carter led his own band at Billy Berg’s Club, Los Angeles, followed by residencies at the Hollywood and Casa Mañana. He started a residency at the Apollo, N.Y. (1944); he was billed as “The Amazing Man of Music7In 1945 he had residencies at the Trocadero, Hollywood, Plantation Club. During this period, his band included (at times) Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, Art Pepper, and Max Roach; the band broke up in 1946. He reorganized a new seven-piece band (1947) and continued to do occasional tours, but from the late 1940s through the early 1970s he worked mainly as a composer-arranger for the film and later TV industry.

In 1950, he chaired the committee that negotiated the successful effort to combine the black musicians local 767 of Los Angeles with the white local 47. He led his own bands in and around Hollywood during the 1950s. In the 1950s and 1960s, he also did brief overseas tours with Norman Grant’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. In the late 1950s and 1960s, he did arrangements for various singers, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine, and Mel Torme; he also played trombone on Capitol records by Julia Lee. Carter restricted his playing to the alto sax during the 1960s. He subbed with Duke Ellington as a favor for a few nights early in 1968, and later that year played solo dates in the U.K. During the past 25 years, Carter has arranged and composed music for dozens of important films, among them The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The View from Pompey’s Head, As Thousands Cheer,and Clash by Night. He also wrote music for more than two dozen theatrical films, including An American in Paris, The Sun Also Rises,and The Guns ofNavarone. In 1975 he traveled throughout the Middle East on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and around 1976 he resumed an extremely busy full-time jazz career including frequent visits to Europe and Japan. He played at President Jimmy Carter’s White House Jazz Party (June 1978). In the 1970s, he became involved in education, conducting seminars and workshops at many universities. He has received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Princeton, New England Cons., and Rutgers Univ. Other honors include induction into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame (1978), the coveted Golden Score award of the American Society of Music Arrangers (1980), and appointment to the music advisory panel of the NEA. He also led an orch. for the 1984 inaugural of President Reagan and played at the White House in 1989 as a guest of President Bush. In 1987 Carter received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. That year he recorded Central City Sketches with the American Jazz Orch., nominated for a Grammy in 1988. Carter placed first in the 1989 Down Beat International Critics Poll in the arranger’s category. Carter celebrated his 82nd birthday with a concert in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Summer 1991 saw the premiere of a suite called “Good Vibes,” which Lincoln Center had commissioned from Carter for this occasion. He wrote the “Peaceful Warrior Suite” for Martin Luther King, commissioned by the Library of Congress for a big band, strings, and Joe Williams and Marlena Shaw. In 1990 Carter was named Jazz Artist of the Year in both the Down Beat and Jazz Times International Critics’ polls. He received a Kennedy Center honor on Dec. 8, 1996.


Symphony in Riffs (1930); Chocolate Dandies (1933); When Lights are Low (1936); Crazy Rhythm (1937); All of Me (1940); New Jazz Sounds (1954); Urbane Mr. Carter (1954); Jazz Giant (1957); Aspects (1958); Swingin’ the Twenties (1958); Further Definitions (1961); B.B.B. & Co.(1962); Additions to Further Definition (1966); Live and Well in Japan (1977); Montreux (1977); Gentleman and His Music (1985); Central City Sketches (1987); Cookin’ at Carlos 1 (1988); Over the Rainbow (1988); My Man Benny, My Man Phil (1989); Devil’s Holiday (1991); Harlem Renaissance (1992); B.C. Songbook Vols. 1, 2 (1995); Another Time, Another Place (1996); Journey to Next (1996).


J. Evensmo, The Alto Saxophone, Trumpet, and Clarinet of B. C, 1927-1946 (Hosle, Norway, 1982); M. Berger, B. C: A Life in American Music (Metuchen, N.J., 1982); Benny Carter Plays Standards (Milwaukee, WI, 1996).

—John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter

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Carter, Benny (actually, Bennett Lester; aka “The King”)

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