Carter, Bennett Lester (“Benny”)
Carter, Bennett Lester (“Benny”)
Carter grew up in the San Juan Hill section of uptown New York City, third and last child and only son of Norrell Carter, a janitor, postal clerk, and self-taught guitarist, and Sadie (Bennett) Carter, a domestic worker who played piano and organ. He began playing piano at age ten. Inspired by cousin Theodore “Cuban” Bennett, an accomplished trumpet player, he saved money to purchase such a horn. Frustrated when he did not master it over a weekend, he immediately traded it in for a C-melody saxophone. (However, he eventually mastered both instruments along with several others.) Self-effacing and even tempered, young Carter was also willful and strong enough to punch a seventh grade male teacher who manhandled him. He was summarily expelled, ending his formal education. Carter’s keen mind, however, led to an active self-education that enabled him to compose and arrange musical scores in his teens, blessed as he was with perfect pitch. Arthur Reeves was the most inspiring of Carter’s several music teachers; he was also influenced by saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer, Rudy Wiedoeft, and Wayne King as well as young jazz players Coleman Hawkins on the tenor saxophone and Johnny Hodges on the alto saxophone.
Carter was sitting in with jazz musicians at Harlem clubs by the time his family moved to that area in 1923. The next year he joined the trio of jazz pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith, who helped Carter improve his playing and convinced him to change from C-melody to alto saxophone. One of Smith’s jazzmen, June Clark, soon hired Carter for a new dance band, with which his skills on alto soon established him as one of the best in jazz. In 1925 he joined the Billy Paige band in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Earl Hines then hired him to play baritone sax as well as alto. Carter’s marriage that year to Rosa Lee Jackson ended with her death from pneumonia in 1928.
Based in New York City, an elegant, personable Carter moved between jazz-rooted dance orchestras as his immense musical skills increased—self-taught arranger, clarinetist, baritone and tenor saxophonist, trombonist, vocalist, but especially trumpet player. The trumpet remained his favorite instrument, which he played as masterfully as he did the alto sax. He moved between top black bands between 1926 and 1928—Horace Henderson’s Wilberforce Collegians, Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, Billy Fowler, Duke Ellington, and Horace’s brother Fletcher Henderson, along with small recording groups like the Chocolate Dandies.
Carter cut his first records in January 1928 playing his own arrangements with Johnson’s band and doubling on alto sax and clarinet. One of these, “Charleston Is the Best Dance After All,” alerted the music world to his talents as arranger and alto sax player. The next month he rejoined Horace Henderson, who suddenly quit the band that summer—whereupon its members elected Carter leader. Mature and talented at twenty-one, Carter proved a natural big band leader. In a “battle” of the bands in Detroit his band defeated the prominent McKinney’s Cotton Pickers led by the arranger Don Redman.
“Benny Carter and his Savoy Play Boys” announced an extended stay at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1928–1929, establishing him as a major band leader and arranger. Much in demand but constrained by Depression-era economics, he moved between his own band and others, notably Fletcher Henderson’s, the most prominent black big band in the nation by 1930.
Carter’s arrangement of “Keep a Song in Your Soul,” recorded by Fletcher’s orchestra that December, set the “swinging” style and instrumentation for all jazz-oriented big dance bands through the 1940s: reeds and brass—trumpets, trombones—sections of up to five and seven pieces respectively, juxtaposed while syncopating in alternating “riffs” usually played behind an improvising solo clarinet, trumpet, or sax. He even sang occasional vocals in the early years.
The best black players (the big bands being segregated) clamored to be hired into this “musicians’ band” under Carter’s direction. Unfortunately, the dancing and listening public then and later did not give his bands the recognition they did those with more distinctive musical identities, such as Artie Shaw, nor did Carter ever hire a booking agent. On 29 October 1929 he married Mary Evelyn Smith, by whom he had a daughter—his only child. They separated in 1932 and divorced in 1938, the same year he married the entertainer Inez Gray. In 1940 they too parted; they divorced in 1945.
After a short stint in 1931 working with the drummer Chick Webb, Carter replaced Redman as leader of the Cotton Pickers orchestra. In 1932 he formed his own all-star band around Chu Berry on tenor sax, Dickie Wells on trombone, “Big Sid” Catlett on drums, and Teddy Wilson on piano. The band played three annual benefits for the “Scottsboro boys” (who had been falsely accused of raping two white women), and it shared honors with (and outplayed) the nation’s leading white orchestra of Paul Whiteman to open the Empire, a posh New York ballroom. In the fall of 1933 a financial backer purchased the Harlem Club (formerly Connie’s Inn) in uptown New York City just for Carter’s band. The following January the band doubled at the Apollo Theater. It began playing at 11 a.m. at the Apollo and finished at the Harlem Club the following 3 a.m., so grueling a pace that Carter gave it up early in 1934 to return to the Empire. With no subsequent offers in view, he disbanded and spent the first months of 1935 as sideman with the Willie Bryant Orchestra.
Nevertheless, so renowned was Carter among musicians that he was compared with Johnny Hodges of the Ellington orchestra as the top alto sax player and hailed for his equal skills on trumpet.(After 1945 experts added Charlie Parker to form a triumvirate with Carter and Hodges in developing the alto sax jazz style.) Ironically, with the Swing Era starting in the United States, Carter elected to go to Paris, France, in 1935 to play with the American band of Willie Lewis.
Carter stayed in Europe for three years, revered by fans hungry for American jazz. He played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, America’s undisputed premier tenor saxophonist, and with Europe’s two finest jazz players, guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Throngs of fans who had bought Carter’s U.S. recordings welcomed him in France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and England; he recorded in all these countries. Although Britain’s musicians union forbade foreigners from playing for pay in public, he served as staff arranger for the BBC dance orchestra and obtained a union waiver to star with a British orchestra at the London Hippodrome in 1937.
Back home the next year Carter formed a dance band to play the Savoy and tour for two years, although the fame and fortune enjoyed by competitors profiting from his musical innovations still eluded him. After playing briefly with Artie Shaw’s predominantly white orchestra in 1941, he wrote arrangements for radio’s Lucky Strike Your Hit Parade and formed a septet for New York club gigs; the group included the drummer Kenny Clarke and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
In addition to arranging for Benny Goodman and other bands, Carter composed several original melodies, notably “Blues in My Heart” (1931), “Blue Interlude” and “Symphony in Riffs” (both 1933), and “Cow Cow Boogie” (1942), the only one to become a major hit—but sung by Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack’s band. During the making of a jazz “soundie” (jukebox-style movie short), Carter and the singer Maxine Sullivan inadvertently inspired Gillespie to write what became the modern jazz classic “A Night in Tunisia.”
Exposure to modern players led Carter to employ several in the new seventeen-piece big band he formed early in 1942—picking up some players as it toured cross-country to Los Angeles, California, including Max Roach on drums, J. J. Johnson on trombone, then later Miles Davis on trumpet and Buddy Rich on drums. Carter’s initial gig at Billy Berg’s Swing Club in Hollywood, California, convinced him to settle in southern California permanently. The band enjoyed great popularity in live wartime performances, over the radio, and on records. His greatest-selling record was one of his own compositions, “Hurry, Hurry” (1943). The addition of Buddy Rich and other white musicians fed the accelerating breakdown of racial barriers. When a dancer asked whether his piano player was white or black, Carter replied, “I don’t know. I never asked him.” As with most of the big bands, rising costs forced him to disband in 1946.
Carter, however, had already begun a new career writing music for motion pictures, starting with the 1943 jazz-filled Stormy Weather and Thousands Cheer, in both of which he also played for the singer Lena Horne. Many films followed, most of which involved his writing the backgrounds but also playing on camera, notably A Song Is Born (1948), An American in Paris (1951), and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). In 1958 he initiated scores for television programs as well, starting with M Squad. Sadly, Carter did not receive on-film credit in either medium until the film A Man Called Adam (1966), starring Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. He concurrently arranged for such pop singers as Pearl Bailey, Ray Charles, and Peggy Lee.
A heart attack in 1956 barely slowed Carter’s pace, and the same year he married Margaret Jackson, a real estate broker. He then helped instigate musicians’ credit unions. Carter performed in Jazz at the Philharmonic tours beginning in 1952 and played Carnegie Hall in 1967. In 1970 he began jazz-teaching visits to several universities, notably Princeton University, Rutgers University, and Yale University. Carter appeared in concerts, jazz festivals, and tours to Japan almost annually, as well as to the Middle East and Switzerland, and in 1976 he had his first New York City club gig in thirty-four years. In 1975 he resumed a friendship with Hilma Ollila Arons, a retired Spanish teacher whom he had dated in the early 1940s but not seen since. In 1978 Carter divorced Margaret and the next year married Hilma. Also in 1978 he led an all-star septet at the first White House tribute to jazz. President Jimmy Carter remarked to him at the event, “I’m glad to have a cousin like you!”
The eldest statesman of jazz, Carter enlarged his repertoire from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s. He recorded fifteen albums—with groups from two players to a combined big band–chamber orchestra—and wrote six extended compositions. One, “Harlem Renaissance,” won a 1992 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition, another won in 1994 for Best Instrumental Solo, and he had five additional Grammy Award nominations. In 1996 he performed in Thailand and at the Lincoln Center, only blocks from his childhood home, and on his ninetieth birthday he played in Oslo, Norway. In declining health after 1997, Carter was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital in 2003 suffering from bronchitis; he died in his sleep at age ninety-five.
Prestigious honors abounded—lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (1987) and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1996), a National Medal of the Arts (2000), and a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California (1995). Perhaps his most meaningful honor had been bestowed during the early 1930s era of jazz royalty—led by the Duke (Ellington), Count (Basie), and Earl (Hines)—when the jazz immortal Louis Armstrong had pronounced Benny Carter “the King” (“because he is a king, man!” Louis remarked in 1955), a title accepted by his contemporaries.
The definitive biography is Morroe Berger, Edward Berger, and James Patrick, Benny Carter: A Life in American Music, 2nd ed. (2002); the first edition (1982) was preceded by the Bergers’ booklet Benny Carter (1980) in the Time-Life Giants of Jazz boxed set of Carter’s recordings. Also useful is the long essay “Benny Carter,” The Swing Era: One More Time-Swing Lives! (1972). Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), is virtually alone in the literature for its rather negative appraisal of Carter’s achievements. Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s (1985), includes interviews of Carter. A television documentary is “Symphony in Riffs” (1992). John S. Wilson, “A Versatile Master,” New York Times (14 July 2003), is an anticipatory obituary written before Wilson’s death.
Clark G. Reynolds