Benny Carter - Biography

By NIck Castro


Benny Carter was a famous jazz bandleader, saxophonist and trumpet player. He was born in 1907 in New York to a mother who played piano and taught him from an early age to do the same. He was a pivotal figure in jazz all through the 30s and 40s but his career continued far beyond that to his death. His nickname was The King. Carter began to teach himself both the trumpet as well as the saxophone. He attended Wilberforce University but quickly left to play music. He was playing professional sessions by his late teens and building his skills amongst more seasoned players. In the early 20's he played a brief stint with Duke Ellington but it wasn't until 1928 that Carter would make his first appearance on a recording. This was with the Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten . He managed to teach himself music well enough that he arranged two pieces for the group, "Charleston Is the Best Dance After All" and the song "Easy Money".


Soon after his stint with Johnson, Carter began to play with Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra in 1930. He was now arranging for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra as well and before long he became their head arranger. He also served a brief time with Chick Webb, McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the Chocolate Dandies. He came into contact with notable musicians such as pianists Willie "The Lion" Smith and Teddy Wilson. He moved briefly, after the Henderson job, to Detroit to arrange for the Cotton Pickers. Carter, had by this time, become a premier saxophonist in the jazz scene. He returned to New York in 1932 to form the nucleus of what would be his own band. It was there that he began playing with pianist Wilson, saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry, drummer Sid Catlett and trombonist Dicky Wells. The arrangements that Carter wrote for this band became faouns, to this day, and many other bands have since used them for their own concerts and recordings. It was at this time that he came back to Ellington's band as an arranger as well. His group was working, somewhat steadily, throughout the next few years but Carter would pick up work arranging for and playing with other bands such as Willie Bryant's band, where Carter once again played his trumpet rather than his, by this time, usual saxophone. At, what seemed like, the height of Carter's career he made a bold move that would become commonplace later on for jazz musicians: he moved to Europe. He had done some arranging and producing of sessions for British composer Spike Hughes and this led to a position as arranger for the BBC's house radio band. He was already in Europe, playing with the Willie Lewis band, when he accepted this offer. It is said that famed jazz critic Leonard Feather helped to arrange this job for him. Carter commenced recordings while in Europe as well, including one of the first jazz waltzes, "Waltzing the Blues".


Upon his return to the USA in 1938 he started an unsuccessful big band. Big bands in that era were becoming increasingly difficult to keep afloat financially and Carter's was no different. Once the band collapsed Carter began a sextet, which was slightly more successful. Carter, the consummate wanderer, left to Los Angeles, where he appeared in a film, alongside trumpet player Fats Waller, called Stormy Weather. After this he began to get a lot of work writing for the movie studios in Hollywood. He would have a slightly easier time leading a big band on the west coast, often with appearances by many jazz luminaries such as trumpet player Miles Davis, trombonist J.J.Johnson and drummer Max Roach.


Although Carter would continue to record and perform he would share his efforts with the movie studio, having a highly lucrative career doing so. Carter was always considered, not only one of the finest, but, one of the most refined performers of his time. He always managed to acquire prestigious gigs other player would find invariably elusive. It was no different when he did a series of tours with the Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, in the 40's and 50's. Other players in this all star ensemble were Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Bill Harris and Ella Fitzgerald.


During the 60's Carter concentrated on his writing and his live performances became increasingly rare. He worked on the soundtracks of many films including A Man Called Adam, in 1966, which starred Sammy Davis Jr.. He also worked on the films The Snows of Kilamanjaro, The Flower Drum Song, The Gene Krupa Story and Too Late Blues. He was also known to write scores for many of Jazz's biggest names such as Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme and Ray Charles. One of his rare 60's performances was at the famed 1968 Newport Jazz Festival with Trumpeter Gillepsie. Other acts at that festival were Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan.


In the 70's and 80's Carter still maintained a consistent touring schedule around Europe and Japan. In the 80's Carter record two of, what are considered some of his finest works, A Gentleman and his Music (1985 - Concord) and I'm in the Mood for Swing (1987 - Musicmasters). Carter also began a series of lectures at different universities including Rutgers University. Other universities he conducted a series lectures for were Harvard and Princeton. Carter also had a 2-volume book, Benny Carter - A Life in American Music, written about him.


After receiving 2 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime achievement award, from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,

Carter also got his own star on Hollywood's walk of fame. In 2003 Carter died in Los Angeles at the Cedars-Sinai Hospital. He had bronchitis, which had some fatal complications. carter was 95 years old. Carter had one of the longest running careers in jazz, spanning 8 decades. He will be remembered through not only his great body of recorded work, but through his compositions such as "When Lights Are Low" and "Key Largo".








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