Benny Carter, Trumpeter

Benny Carter (1907-2003) is indelibly identified as a master of the alto saxophone, to the point where many listeners new to his work don’t know that he was also one of the great trumpet soloists of the 1930s. He gave up the horn for several years, concentrating on alto sax, composing and arranging. When he picked up the trumpet again and spent six weeks reconditioning his chops, he regained his distinctive tone and expansive way of improvising. He was always in search of perfection.

Seriously, though, here is Carter at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival, playing trumpet and alto saxophone. The rhythm section is Ray Bryant, piano; Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, bass; and Jimmie Smith, drums. The video has a case of the tremors, but the sound quality is fine.

The entire Carter quartet session at Montreux is on this CD. If you would like to hear him on clarinet, an instrument he mastered in the 1920s and, unfortunately, abandoned in the forties, listen to the title track of this album.

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  1. says

    Benny was an underrated trumpeter, that’s for sure. Okay, when you’re looking at the list of trumpeters who played in his orchestra, you wouldn’t wonder further why he has abandoned the instrument for a while: Freddie Webster, Miles Davis, Emmett Berry, Jonah Jones, Taft Jordan, Doc Cheatham … young Dizzy played his very first impressive trumpet solo on an all star date with Lionel Hampton, “Hot Mallets”, 9/11/1939, where Benny’s own immortal “When Lights Are Low” was recorded for the very first time.

    Harry James was around then as well, so were Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Billy Butterfield, or the ingenious Bunny Berigan … No one would blame any trumpeter for leaving the horn alone for a while when there were other things to do, like arranging, and composing some of the greatest charts in big band history.

    Anyway, Benny Carter blew some bold bugle; as here for example, on Stardust, accompanied by the orchestra of the N.B.C. Chamber Society Of Lower Basin Street, conducted by Hot Lips Levine (another trumpeter?) on May 5, 1940. (In the key of Db, by the way!)

    P.S. — I’ve detected another of Benny Carter’s trumpet interpretations of Stardust in my files. This time it’s Benny Carter with his own Orchestra, also from 1940, starting with the muted horn, and ending with a great cadenza in the open.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Henry “Hot Lips” Levine (1907-1989) was born in London. His parents moved to New York when he was six months old. He was a Boy Scout bugler, then studied trumpet with the great Max Schlossberg of the New York Philharmonic. Levine worked in a number of New York bands and at 19 replaced Nick La Rocca in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He later led NBC’s in-house Dixieland group, the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, which had a weekly program on the radio network.

      We don’t often embed videos in replies but, what the heck, it’s almost the weekend. Here are three soundies from 1941, Levine and his band backing a singer called Linda Keene. I say “called” because Levine reportedly named all of his girl singers Linda Keene, possibly after the Ginger Rogers character in Shall We Dance, Rogers’ 1937 movie with Fred Astaire..

      Have a good weekend.

  2. says

    The great BC was a composer of many pieces, a player of many instruments, and a gentle man of many parts. The concept of a musician’s musician might have been created for him. But that “honor” often also means something like “the general public pays no attention.” I’m wondering if certain musicians don’t just live so long that they literally outlive their audience. Or did Benny simply disappear into the Hollywood studio scene for too many years? Maybe I’m overstating minor negatives? Well, whichever, it’s good to be reminded of his long and distinguished life in music.

  3. says

    P.S. — There’s one trumpeter missing from my list of great names, of upcoming brass contemporaries who might have shortly “interrupted” the career of, but only the trumpeter (!) Benny Carter : Charlie Shavers.

  4. says

    Thanks for the information regarding ‘Hot Lips’ Levine. — My friend “tenorsfan” from YouTube says something different about Linda Keene, Doug. — Here’s what he wrote:

    “Levine had Dodie O’Neill, Dinah Shore, Lena Horne all in his band and the only one he called Linda Keene was the real Linda Keene. I know quite a bit about her because I tried to put out a CD of her. (…)”

    As I found out, there was a certain Linda Keene who sang with Jack Teagarden in 1939.

    Steve: I only say “Shavers Shivers” 😉

    • says

      It took me a lot of digging to research Linda Keene’s life. To track down some of her recordings took another year. Four of her songs were so rare that I found only one record collector in all of Canada who had those two 78s. Her birth name was Florence McCrory. She took her stage name of Linda Keene in 1938 after seeing a Ginger Rogers film. Never could find out if she kept on singing after 1953. I produced her CD and released it at Worlds Records

    • says


      It is hard to disagree with your bold statement. I had NO clue that benny was anything other than a brilliant reed man and composer/arranger, in my callow youth :). Then, I heard this take on ‘body and soul’ from montreux…………and was stunned by its beauty. And then I discovered it was Mr. Carter. Truthfully, I felt ashamed to have been so ignorant of the breadth of his talent. Then i did more digging and was even more humbled.

      If there is a church for St. Coltrane, surely there should be one for St. Carter.

  5. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    Carter did everything well. I am editing his music for publication, and it is rock solid, sounds well, swings and much of it can be played by middle school bands. In fact, I think many of his pieces are perfect for studies in style and ensemble building.

    There are so few composers whose music is written for pros but sounds well played by students. He is another Mozart as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Terence Smith says

    I just saw the Doug Ramsey article on Benny Carter’s neglected trumpet playing and great genius. When I read it I was filled with auditory nostalgia, instant replay of recordings I listened to obsessively at ages 10 or 11 or earlier: “When Lights Are Low”, Dinah”, “My Buddy”. In 1939, RCA Victor Records commissioned great vibes pioneer/Benny Goodman associate Lionel Hampton to make a series of “All Star Groups” 78 RPM records. Hamp was allowed his choice of anyone from any of the bands of the time, and everyone seemed to make themselves available. Benny Carter was on the three just-named and others, with choice trumpet spots on the latter two. I can hear them now without even putting the record on. My dad had had the old 78s and joined the Jazztone record club in the early 1950s, partly so he could get the 78’s assembled together on “Lionel Hampton’s All Star Groups” LP, Jazztone records J1246 (I am looking at this treasured artifact right now). I listened to it daily and soon found a copy of “Swing Classics: Lionel Hampton and his Jazz Groups”LP, RCA LPM-2318 with more Benny Carter, Nat Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Charlie Chistian, Freddie Greene, Dizzy Gillespie’s first recorded section work, Clyde Hart, Johnny Hodges, JC Higginbotham,Joe Sullivan,Cozy Cole, Jess Stacy, and so many others in various combinations, sometimes playing what I am sure are Benny Carter arrangements.

    Years later I read critic Andre Hodeir’s opinion that the “When LIghts Are Low”, Dec 11, 1939 represented the “apotheosis of the swing music movement” and I just said yep, Andre, you’re right. Benny Carter composer, arranger, and equally great soloist alongside Hawk. And think about this. Didn’t Miles Davis choose “When Lights Are Low” to simplify (by leaving out the beautiful B. Carter bridge and substituting just moving up a fourth for 8 bars) and use, in 1955 with Trane, as one of the “milestones” on his way to the modal phase of hard bop? Another thought: Carter had an Impulse album in the early 60s that was uniquely modern. Thanks for reminding me to relisten to all this stuff, and to Lionel Hampton for his inspired choices, especially his choice of Benny Carter.