REMEMBERING BENNY CARTER
July 16, 2003
His "official" website (www.bennycarter.com), under a warm photo of Benny in what looks like his trophy/music room, states that,"Benny Carter died peacefully July 12 in a Los Angeles Hospital (Cedars-Sinai) after a brief illness." He was 95, actually less than a month short of his 96th birthday. He was born in NYC on August 8, 1907. Before Charlie Parker and bebop, the alto players of note were Carter, Johnny Hodges and, to a lesser extent, Willie Smith. My interest in jazz came during that mid-40s evolution, so it took awhile for me to appreciate the music that preceded those drastic jazz changes. One reason for this was the unavailability of many of the classic recordings, items that are now so readily available. To hear the classic Ellington and Basie sides, the playing of a Charlie Christian or a Jimmy Blanton, you would have to know an older person with a wide ranging jazz collection. I was about 12 when bebop became a passion and it was only three years later, in 1950, when I joined the Montreal chapter of the New Jazz Society and rubbed elbows with more mature jazz fans that I began to understand the importance of a Lester Young or a Jo Jones to the development of the music I loved. It was two years later that I developed an interest in Benny Carter, this after seeing him in a sky lodge sequence in the film, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". I got to actually speak to him when he made a second appearance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. He had played the Spectrum in the late 80s with a local trio led by pianist Reg Wilson. This time it was a three generation affair at Theatre Maisonneuve with Charlie Haden and Eric Reed, a memorable concert. I stopped him in the lobby of the hotel to mention to him that we had a mutual friend in the late Keith Stowell, a member of the Montreal Vintage Music Society, who had met Carter in the 30s when Benny lived in England writing arrangements for the BBC. He said he was sorry that he wasn't able to come to Montreal for the funeral referring to Stowell as "dear Keith". I gave Benny a copy of that week's edition of MIRROR mentioning that I had written a short piece about him. The following day I heard a voice saying, "Excuse me son" -- it was Benny wanting to tell me that we had "a fine little newspaper". Despite his age, his death came as quite a shock, he was one of those people that seemed immortal.
He was born Bennett Lester Carter and his rather remarkable career started early, he went, almost immediately from trumpet to the saxophone [a c-melody] and during his long career played [and in most cases recorded] on alto, tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano and sang. He'll be best remembered for his alto playing and for the large body of arrangements and compositions he left as part of his musical legacy. Although he later did some studying, early on he was an autodidact. His cousin Cuban Bennett, an unsung trumpet player, was an early influence on that instrument, as was Bubber Miley. By the age of 16, Benny was working with Willie "The Lion" Smith, a year later, after switching to the alto, he was in the band of June Clark and before the 1920s were out was heard with people like Earl Hines [on baritone], Charlie Johnson, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington and a reorganized "Wilberforce Collegians". He had earlier attended that University but put studies aside to travel with an earlier edition of that band led by Fletcher's brother, Horace Henderson. By the early 30s he was doubling trumpet and, besides rejoining Fletcher, also worked briefly with Chick Webb before joining McKinney's Cotton Pickers from 1931 into '32. He then formed the first of the many bands he was to lead during his lifetime, bands that would employ musicians like Big Sid Catlett, Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry and later Max Roach, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson and Gerald Wilson all early in their careers. In 1933 composer Spike Hughes came from the U.K. to have his music recorded by U.S. musicians. The band heard on those important sides was for the most part Carter's. After a spell on trumpet with Willie Bryant, he headed to, first France, then England, Holland and Scandinavia. He returned to the U.S. in May of 1938 and shortly thereafter was leading a band at NY's famed Savoy Ballroom.
He had much earlier taught himself to arrange and compose and in the 40s moved to the U.S. West Coast where he began writing for film beginning with "Stormy Weather" -- "As Thousands Cheer", "The View From Pompey's Head", "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "An American In Paris" followed, as did [in the late 50s] scores for such TV series as "M Squad", "Ironside", "The Name of The Game" and "Chrysler Theatre". In the 60s he acted as musical director for people like Peggy Lee, Ray Charles, Pearl Bailey and Lou Rawls. He then got involved in jazz education while continuing to play and compose. He was the subject of "A Life in American Music", an extensive bio by Morroe Berger assisted by his son Ed Berger and James Patrick. In 1987, The American Jazz Orchestra, with John Lewis as its musical director, recorded Carter's "Central City Sketches" as well as earlier pieces like "Symphony In Riffs", "Blues In My Heart" and "Easy Money". There is much rewarding music to hear and a selection of recordings follows.
SELECTED RECORDINGS FROM MY COLLECTION.
McKinney's Cotton Pickers: "The Band Don Redman Built" [Bluebird]. Sides from 1928-1930 featuring Carter on alto and clarinet along with Joe Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and Kaiser Marshall as well as the writing of Redman, an early influence on Carter, as were Horace Henderson, Bill Challis and Archie Bleyer.
Spike Hughes and Benny Carter: "1933" [Retrieval]. All the sides Hughes made in the U.S. with players like Dicky Wells, Hawkins, Wayman Carver [flute], Chu Berry and Catlett as well as such Carter masterpieces as "Devil's Holiday", "Lonesome Nights" and "Symphony In Riffs" under Benny's name.
Benny Carter: "Devil's Holiday" [JSP]. From the years 1933-1934, Carter's band plus music by the "Chocolate Dandies" and by Mezz Mezzrow. Carter sings on a number of cuts as well as being heard on alto, clarinet and trumpet. Included are "Swing It", and "Swingin' with Mezz" on which Carter plays some great trumpet. On hearing this one Louis Armstrong called Mezz and said whoever that trumpet player is, "he's perfect".
Benny Carter: "Symphony In Riffs" [ASV]. gives one a good idea of Carter's versatility as it features him on alto, clarinet, vocal, trumpet, tenor and piano as showing off his considerable skills as an arranger and composer. "Just A Mood" is here as is the initial recording of "When Lights Are Low" done in London in 1936 with a vocal by Elisabeth Welch.
Coleman Hawkins: "Body & Soul" [Topaz]. This one contains "Crazy Rhythm" one of the great sides Benny did with four saxophones [including "Bean"] and Django Reinhart in Paris in 1937 [later recreated on a 1961 Impulse date] as well as "Pom Pom" with the "Varsity Seven" and a 1940 version of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" by the Chocolate Dandies, one singled out as a favourite by Lee Konitz.
Lionel Hampton: "Hot Mallets, Vol. 1" [Bluebird]. Back in the U.S., Carter did some marvellous sides with vibraphonist Hampton. Included here are Carter's "I'm In The Mood For Swing" and "Shoe Shiner's Drag" (actually "London Blues") by Jelly Roll Morton from July 1938 and a September 1939 all-star date that included a startling young Dizzy Gillespie, Hawkins, Ben Webster and Chu Berry, Clyde Hart, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole and Charlie Christian in Carter arrangements of "When Lights Are Low", "One Sweet Letter From You", "Hot Mallets" and "Early Session Hop".
Benny Carter: "Big Band On The Air" [New Sound Planet]. Carter's many big bands have been proving grounds for musicians (as I mentioned earlier). Having played successfully in a Carter was like getting a diploma from the best of universities. This CD has airchecks from Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in 1939 when [trumpeter] Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Tyree Glenn, Eddie Heywood and Hayes Alvis were in band as well as a number of tracks from the 1946 L.A. band that included Miles, Candy Ross, Al Grey, Bob Graettinger, Bumps Myers and Percy Brice. Try "Jump Call".
Benny Carter: "Jazz Profile no. 017" [Blue Note]. Sixteen tracks recorded between 1943 and 1958 by Benny Carter big bands, The Capitol International Jazzmen, the Red Norvo Nine, Julia Lee and a number of Carter combos. It includes big band versions of "Love For Sale" with J.J. Johnson's first recorded trombone solo and "Malibu", the cut that Quincy Jones says set him off on the road to being a jazz arranger, plus small group sides that include Jimmy Rowles, Teddy Charles and Mel Lewis.
Charlie Parker: "Bird's Eyes Vol. 18" [Philology]. Contains a 1946 "Jubilee" broadcast that features Willie Smith, Carter and Parker.
Charlie Parker: "The Complete Charlie Parker" [Verve]. Disc 8, has a 1952 Jam Session that features Parker, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges with Flip Phillips and Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard on long versions of "Jam Blues", "Funky Blues" and "What Is This Thing Called Love" with Carter getting to play "Isn't It Romantic" on the "Ballad Medley".
Benny Carter: "The Three Cs" [Sackville] A recent release of a 1968 concert from Baden, Switzerland with Benny joining an octet led by pianist Henri Chaix.
Benny Carter: "Further Definitions" [Impulse]. The 1961 return to the great arrangements for four saxes done in the 30s in France. This time the parts are played by Carter, Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse. As an added bonus, the 1966 LA sessions with Benny, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette or Bill Perkins, Teddy Edwards and Bill Hood are also included here.
Quincy Jones: "Go West, Man!" [Chessmates]. Contains four 1957 tracks with a sax section of four altos, Benny, Art Pepper, Charlie Mariano and Herb Geller.
Benny Carter: "Over The Rainbow" [Musicmasters]. A 1988 "All-Star sax ensemble" made up of Carter, Geller, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Joe Temperley plays nine tracks including Carter's "Blues For Lucky Lovers", "Easy Money" and "Straight Talk".
The American Jazz Orchestra / Benny Carter: "Central City Sketches". Includes the title suite plus returns to "Easy Money", "Blues In My Heart", "Lonesome Nights" and "Doozy".
Count Basie: "Kansas City Suite" and "The Legend". Two great CDs of Carter arrangements for the Basie bands of 1960 and 1961 including "Sunset Glow" and "Turnabout".
Benny Carter: "In The Mood For Swing" [Musicmasters]. A 1987 session with Roland Hanna on piano and Howard Alden and Dizzy Gillespie as guests on selected tracks -- includes a beautiful version of "Summer Serenade".
Benny Carter / Dizzy Gillespie: "Carter, Gillespie, Inc.". B.C. and John Birks from 1976 with Joe Pass on guitar on things like "Night In Tunisia" and Carter's "The Courtship".
Benny Carter / Dizzy Gillespie / Quincy Jones: "Journey To Next" [Lightyear Entertainment]. Music from a number of films made by John and Faith Hubley including Carter's score for "Urbanissimo" which was shown at the Montreal World's Fair, Expo 67.
Benny Carter: "A Gentleman and His Music" [Concord]. A 1985 septet outing with Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert and the great trumpet of Joe Wilder.
Benny Carter: "Legends" [Musicmasters]. Hank Jones spices up this 1992 session that also includes "Doc" Cheatham.
Benny Carter: "Elegy In Blue" [Musicmasters]. A series of dedications with Carter joined by "Sweets" Edison and Cedar Walton on pieces like "Little Jazz", "Ceora", "Good Queen Bess" and "Blue Monk".
Benny Carter / Phil Woods: "My Man Benny, My Man Phil" [Musicmasters]. The two altomen together again, this time with Chris Neville, George Mraz and Kenny Washington. Includes a 1989 look back to "Just A Mood".
Marian McPartland: "Plays The Benny Carter Songbook" [Concord]. This 1990 session of eleven Carter compositions includes Benny as a guest on selected tracks.
Benny wrote a number of songs that became part of the jazz repertoire. I already mentioned the original version of "When Lights Are Low", others include "Cow Cow Boogie", the hit version is by Ella Mae Morse and Freddie Slack [Capitol] and more recently, Mel Torme did a version with Rob McConnell's Boss Brass [Concord]. Mildred Bailey's version of "Blues In My Heart" [Decca] is the one to own. For "Lonely Woman" (not be confused with the Horace Silver and Ornette Coleman compositions of the same name) there are versions by June Christy with Stan Kenton [Capitol] and Jackie Cain with Charlie Ventura [Proper Box] and the Anita O'Day version of "Key Largo"[Zillion] has recently been joined by a Chris Connor version featuring Ingrid Jensen [High Note].
Some quotes: "Everyone ought to listen to Benny, he's a whole musical education" -- Miles Davis; "We broke our backs to get into Benny's band" -- "Doc" Cheatham; "The most complete professional musician I've ever known" -- Sy Oliver; "One of the great influences in American music, one of its unsung heroes" -- John Hammond; "We always called him 'The King" because he was probably the most respected musician of the whole lot of us" -- Clark Terry and [the day after Benny's death], "A big, big person walked out of the room yesterday -- a great human being" -- Quincy Jones.
(An Associated Press obit by Mason Stockstill calls Clark Terry, "another early jazz pioneer". As Clark was born in 1920 one wonders what Mr. Stockstill's definition of early jazz is.)
© Len Dobbin 2003
Montreal, Quebec, Canada