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Eight Decades in American Music
In 1999, Benny Carter celebrated his 92nd birthday. In a musical career unmatched in longevity, diversity, and excellence, Carter occupies a unique place in American music. As Duke Ellington once wrote: "The problem 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." His accomplishments span eight decades as a professional musician-from the 1920s to the 1990s.
As a soloist, Carter, along with Johnny Hodges, was the model for swing era alto saxophonists. He is nearly unique in his ability to double on trumpet, which he plays in an equally distinctive style. In addition, he is an accomplished clarinetist, and has recorded proficiently on piano and trombone. As an arranger, he helped chart the course of big band jazz, and his compositions, such as "When Lights Are Low" and "Blues In My Heart," have become jazz standards. Carter has also made major musical contributions to the world of film and television. His musicianship and personality have won him the respect of fellow artists and audiences on every continent.
Born in New York in 1907, Carter received his first music lessons on piano
from his mother. Largely self-taught, by age fifteen, Carter was already sitting
in at Harlem night spots. From 1924 to 1928, Carter gained valuable professional
experience as a sideman in some of New York's top bands. He eventually joined
Fletcher Henderson's seminal orchestra, and in 1931 he became musical director
of another important musical organization: the Detroit-based McKinney's Cotton
Pickers. Already a major force on alto, he now returned to his first love,
the trumpet. Within two years, Carter was making trumpet recordings that rivaled
his alto classics.
In 1932, Carter returned to New York and soon began putting together his own orchestra, which eventually would include such swing stars as Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Sid Catlett, and Dicky Wells. As was the case with all Carter-led units, the group was known as a "musicians' band."
A timely invitation brought Carter to Paris in 1935 to play with Willie Lewis's
orchestra. At the suggestion of music critic Leonard Feather, he was invited
to England to serve as arranger for the BBC dance orchestra. Carter played
an essential role in spreading jazz abroad. Over the next three years, he
traveled throughout Europe, playing and recording with the top British,
French, and Scandinavian jazzmen, as well as with visiting American stars
such as his friend Coleman Hawkins. In Holland during this period, Carter
also led the first international, interracial band.
Returning home in 1938, Carter formed another superb orchestra, which spent
much of 1939 and 1940 at Harlem's famed Savoy Ballroom. His arrangements were
much in demand and were featured on recordings by Benny Goodman, Count Basie,
Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1941,
Carter pared down to a sextet, which included bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie
and Kenny Clarke. In 1942, he brought a reorganized big band to California,
where he has lived ever since. In the mid-1940s, the band included important
modernists, such as Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, and Art Pepper,
all of whom have acknowledged their debt to Carter as a teacher. As Miles
Davis once said: "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter. He's a whole musical
On the West Coast the versatile Carter moved increasingly into studio work. Beginning with "Stormy Weather" in 1943, he arranged for dozens of feature films and television productions. His credits encompass all musical idioms, from feature films such as "A Man Called Adam" and "Buck and the Preacher" to television shows, including "M Squad" and "Chrysler Theater. He has provided arrangements for almost every major popular singer, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme.
Although Carter gave up full-time leadership of a big band in 1946,
he has continued to tour as a soloist and with such all- star groups as Jazz
at the Philharmonic. To the delight of his many fans worldwide, Carter has
resumed a more active playing schedule during the last few years. He visits
Europe often and has become a virtual commuter to Japan where jazz fans eagerly
anticipate his frequent tours of specially assembled all-star orchestras.
In the 1970s, Carter turned his talents in a new direction - education. He has conducted seminars and workshops at many universities, including Princeton, Harvard, and Rutgers, all of which have awarded him honorary doctorates. In 1994, Carter's star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the ceremony, Quincy Jones credited Carter with having opened doors in film and television work which were previously closed to black artists.
In 1996, Carter was awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor. He remains a vibrantly creative improvisor. His recent albums for MusicMasters have met with universal critical acclaim, garnering seven Grammy nominations and two Grammies (for Harlem Renaissance and Elegy in Blue). Constantly evolving and absorbing, Carter's playing retains the basic foundations that have always made it readily identifiable. It is not surprising that, in a music populated by royalty, Benny Carter is still known to his fellow musicians as "King."
About this Exhibit
This online exhibit on the life and times of Benny Carter is based on a show at Dana Library on the Rutgers-Newark Campus earlier in 1999. The library exhibit was curated by Institute of Jazz Studies Associate Director Ed Berger who, along with his father, the late Morroe Berger, and musicologist James Patrick, wrote the definitive Carter biography, Benny Carter: A Life in American Music (Scarecrow Press, 1982). In addition to continuing to record Carter's life with his cameras, Berger is currently revising his earlier volume. Berger has also served as Carter's record producer and road manager for several years. This tribute to Benny Carter was prepared by Roberto Crespo, system administrator, and Tad Hershorn, archivist at Institute of Jazz Studies.
Musical Selection: "The Courtship" from In the Mood for Swing, MusicMasters 5001-2-c 1987)