Benny Carter

Benny, Ben, and Earl

I’ve switched gears this year in terms of the album feature that’s been a part of Jazz a la Mode on Tuesday nights for the past decade.  Rather than focus on a chronological survey of recordings made 50 years ago, I’ll be featuring a different album each week from random points in time.  One of the reasons for this is the number of listener requests I’ve received in recent years for albums that don’t conform to a golden anniversary timeline.  Another is simply the frustration that inevitably grows with arbitrary boundaries, and the increasing awareness I had of the countless great records that I wasn’t getting to, so now’s the time to branch out.

Benny Carter

Benny Carter

Tonight’s feature is Benny Carter’s Jazz Giant, a mainstream jazz masterpiece that Carter recorded over the course of four sessions in 1957 and ’58 for Contemporary. 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.  Following the stylistically maturing period that Ben spent with Duke Ellington in the early 40’s, he was all over a handful of Carter small group sessions later in the decade.  Around this time, Webster began calling Carter, “The King,” an appellation no one took issue with.  “A Walkin’ Thing” is one of only two Carter originals on Jazz Giant.  Listen to how beautifully the series of solos by Webster, Frank Rosolino, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rowles, and Carter unfolds in Benny’s arrangement.  Carter was equally renowned as a player and orchestrator, and the dreamy backgrounds played behind the soloists on “A Walkin’ Thing” are a prime example of this latter skill.

Carter made a less heralded recording with Earl Hines in 1958 called Swingin’ the 20’s.  This Contemporary session drew on tunes composed in the decade when both Hines and Carter achieved early prominence.  Their paths rarely crossed over the years; Hines was based in Chicago between the 20’s and ‘40’s where he worked at the Apex Club with Jimmie Noone in the late ‘20’s, famously recorded with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1928, then formed his own orchestra which held forth at the Grand Terrace Ballroom until after WWII.  Duke Ellington once quipped that “Earl Hines owned Chicago.”  Carter was based in his native New York during much of that period, freelancing as an arranger for Fletcher Henderson, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many more.  He moved to London in 1935 where he worked as a staff arranger with the BBC, and played both alto and trumpet (as he does on Jazz Giant) on the classic All Star Jam Band session with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt in Paris in 1937.  He led a succession of orchestras after his return to the States in 1938, but none enjoyed the popularity his impeccable music warranted.

Benny Carter, photo by William Gottlieb

Benny Carter, photo by William Gottlieb

Carter and Hines followed separate paths to the West Coast in the late 40’s, Hines to San Francisco where he led small combos and saw his recorded output slow to a trickle; Carter to Hollywood where he became a trailblazing black musician composing for films and television.  He also maintained a presence on the jazz scene in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and recorded outstanding small group dates for Norman Granz with Teddy Wilson, Don Abney, Oscar Peterson, and Roy Eldridge.  In 1952 he appeared on the legendary alto summit with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker that produced the classic “Funky Blues.” Ben Webster was also on the session, and the following year Carter appeared on one of Ben’s dates for Granz.  But of their many recordings together, Jazz Giant’s spirited interplay makes it their most essential.

This footage of Carter and Hines is from a 1976 concert in Barcelona.  The tunes include “Undecided,” “Misty,” and the Hines original, “Rosetta.”  I recognize the venue as the Gran Teatre del Liceu where I saw a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth in 2004.  That was memorable, but this only makes me wish I’d been in Catalonia 28 years earlier, or that cameras filmed the performances I saw Benny play in the ’80′s.  What a treat to see these veteran masters, 69-year-old Carter and 73-year-old Hines is 73, still taking care of business.

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