Benny Carter, Jazz Giant
Jazz a la Mode premiered 29 years ago this month, and one of my first birthday features was on Benny Carter, who turned 77 on August 8 of that year. The show was 90 minutes long back then, and I devoted an entire program to the great saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger, and bandleader. A day or two later, I got one of my first pieces of mail from a listener. It came from a man expressing good wishes about WFCR’s brand new jazz format, but also wondering, “What’s with all the Benny Carter?” I knew the writer to be a musician and jazz lover, so it surprised me that he wasn’t hip to Carter, and I replied that if he gave him time, he’d soon come to appreciate the splendors of Carter’s music. Not long afterward, this same listener wrote to say, “Thanks for turning me on to Benny Carter. I can’t stop buying his records!”
I became a fan of Carter's music the moment I heard his sumptuous alto on Jazz Giant, which I initially purchased because Ben Webster, a player I’d already come to appreciate as a giant, was a sideman. As I soon learned, Big Ben had been a member of Carter’s orchestra in the mid-30’s when the tenor great was still in his formative stage, and the mature Webster was all over a handful of Carter small group sessions in the mid-40’s. Here’s “A Walkin’ Thing” from Jazz Giant. Listen to how beautifully a series of solos by Webster, Frank Rosolino, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rowles, and Carter unfolds on Benny's original. Carter was equally renowned as a player and arranger, and the dreamy backgrounds played behind the soloists on “A Walkin’ Thing” are a prime example of this latter skill. Imagine the gate of the gal who inspired this one!
I’d been listening to Carter for several years before I learned that all the cats, including Louis Armstrong, called him King. As early as 1943, Duke Ellington said that he was “completely fazed” by trying to summarize Carter’s ”extraordinary…contributions.” Gary Giddins wrote, “No one in jazz history—including Armstrong, Ellington, Gillespie, Parker—was more universally admired by his brethren.“ Sonny Rollins likened him to Coleman Hawkins and recalled that he was always, “Mr. Carter.” Harold Jones, the drummer whose credits include Count Basie and Tony Bennett, says that when he played on Carter’s band, he’d often catch himself being distracted by the beauty of the music and think, “Wait a minute, I’m part of this too!”
Pianist Mike LeDonne wrote today to say that he didn't know “Carter very well…but when I was around him he was always very nice but very serious about music. I know he hated it when people quoted other tunes in their solos. I know he and Hank Jones got into a little spat over that very thing.” Such standards were characteristic of the fastidious “Mr. Carter,” and underscore why he never enjoyed more than moderate success as a bandleader in the early and late ‘30’s. In between those undertakings, he lived in England, where he was a staff arranger for the BBC Radio Dance Orchestra, and in 1936 recorded his best-known tune, “When Lights Are Low,” for English Decca. (Miles Davis, who played in Carter's orchestra in the mid-40's, recorded the tune without its bridge twice in the mid-50's, and it was the title cut of a Tony Bennett LP in 1964.) Then he joined his former Fletcher Henderson colleague Coleman Hawkins in Paris for the thrilling All-Star Jam Band session that featured Django Reinhardt; 24 years later, Carter and Hawkins revisited the tunes from that glorious date on Benny’s 1961 masterpiece, Further Definitions.
Following his return to New York, Carter established a couple of other great big bands, including an outfit that featured the young modernists J.J. Johnson and Max Roach, but paydirt kept slipping through his fingers. In 1943, the Wilberforce University graduate moved to Los Angeles and began the pioneering work that would make him the first black composer and arranger to achieve success in the Hollywood studios. His breakthrough was Stormy Weather, the all-black musical which starred Lena Horne in a dramatization of the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Carter went on to score the soundtracks of other films and numerous TV series, including “M-Squad,” “Ironside,” and “It Takes a Thief.” As the man who was chiefly responsible for breaking the color barrier in Hollywood, he paved the way for Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, and today his star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard.
Studio work kept Carter behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce but off the scene as a touring musician for a few decades, and his recordings slowed to a trickle in the 50's and 60's, though every one of them (Cosmopolite; 3/4/5; The Urbane Benny Carter; Jazz Giant; Swingin’ the 20’s; Benny, Ben & Barney; Further Definitions and Additions to Further Definitions) is a gem. When Norman Granz founded Pablo Records in the mid-70’s, Carter got back into gear with the aptly-titled King, a 1976 session that showcased eight of his originals played by a band that included Milt Jackson, Joe Pass, and Tommy Flanagan. That was followed by Pablo dates with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson and an appearance at Montreaux '77 with Count Basie. Flanagan said that the deep-pocketed Granz did “things like they used to be. No striving for a hit…just making sure that the older musicians like Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy are being heard the way they should be.”
Carter lived an exceptionally long and productive life. In the mid-80s he made a blowing session for Concord Jazz with Joe Wilder and Scott Hamilton entitled A Gentleman and His Music which took its title from a review by Whitney Balliett. The New Yorker jazz critic praised Carter's solos for their "seemingly prearranged unity and steady undercurrent of emotion. He is like a deer; one is first struck by his grace and lightness, then by the tensions that govern such beauty." Of his famed arrangments for reed sections, Balliett observed, "Carter regards a big band as made up chiefly of saxophones, with trumpets-trombones-and-rhythm in attendance." One of his greatest late-career recordings was Over the Rainbow which he made in 1988 with his All-Star Sax Ensemble featuring Herb Geller, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Joe Temperley; it's a worthy successor to Further Definitions.
While he composed dozens of tunes, Carter was frustratingly unselfish when it came to performing his own material. When I saw him at Lloyd's in Hartford in 1987, he played two sets of standards which included lots of Ellingtonia but none of the King. When Gary Giddins and John Lewis founded the American Jazz Orchestra in the 80's, one of their ambitions was to present a concert of Carter's new and older works. The result was Central City Sketches, and if that proved to be the AJO's unclaimed raison d'etre, so be it.
One of the most moving musical experiences I've ever had took place at a jazz conference in New York six months after Carter's death in July 2003, Phil Woods, whose first saxophone lessons with Harvey LaRose in Springfield involved practicing Carter solo transcriptions, formed a mutual admiration combo with Benny in the 90's. They toured together and released Another Time Another Place after their 1996 engagement at the RegattaBar in Cambridge. On that January morning at the New York Hilton, Phil was playing with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Billy Hart. Mid-way through the set, he said a few words about Carter, then asked for the mikes to be turned off while he and Barron played a duo in Benny's memory. Just before the downbeat, Woods thrust his alto heavenward and proclaimed, "This one's for the King." At that, a hush came over the SRO crowd and with more than a few handkerchiefs daubing moist eyes, we listened in rapt attention to Carter's lovely original, "Summer Serenade." Here's Benny's take on it in 1980.
Saxophonist Mel Martin is one the major custodians of the King's legacy, and here he is conducting an interview with Carter in 1993 in which Benny discusses Hawkins and the session with Django. He was still in good form 1997, when at age 90 he was the guest soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra on his original, “Vine Street Rumble.”