Benny Carter, An Appreciation, Continued

Please see the previous post for the first installment.

By Jeff Sultanof

In 1999, I went to Los Angeles to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Jerry Graff, my mentor and second father, as well as to visit with Gene Lees and Roger Kellaway. I got a call from Ed Berger to see Benny; he was sorting out his catalog and needed some guidance. I went to his beautiful home in Beverly Hills. Carter immediately took me aback when he said, “I understand you are a very fine arranger.” He introduced me to his wife Hilma and we sat down in his living room, surrounded by gorgeous African art.

Carter had an interesting problem. During the late 1950s through to 1960s, Benny was working at Revue Studios, which was the television arm of Universal Pictures. He wrote many hours of music for various television shows, most notably “M-Squad” (now available on DVD). His boss was a man named Stanley Wilson,m-squad who supervised the music for the company. Wilson gave many composers their starts in writing for film and television; Carter, Elmer Bernstein, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones, Juan Garcia Esquivel, Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin and John Williams (when he was still known as Johnny Williams). Wilson kept them very busy.

What was the problem Berger wanted me to help Benny with? Carter was putting together a master list of all of his compositions, and was trying to sort out his work for Revue. When a composer wrote a score for television, in some cases the cues (individual pieces of music written as underscoring) would go into a library to be re-used in other shows to save time and money. CBS did the same thing: there were compositions by Bernard Herrmann, Nathan Van Cleave, Fred Steiner and Jerry Goldsmith in their collection. This was perfectly legal, since the composers wrote this music as work-for-hire. As long as they were paid royalties, it was a true win-win situation because a TV show generated composer monies when it was seen anywhere in the world, and the music continued to be used in new TV series. I suggested to Benny that some Mr and Mrs Benny Carterof his cues may have been cut or altered and given new names, creating new compositions which were unknown to him since he didn’t own the music. “As long as they are paying me,” he said. Obviously, these old shows were still in reruns. He told me that his royalty checks were healthy. “They help me continue the lifestyle to which Hilma and I are accustomed,” he grinned. He never did finish the list, but the encounter was a great opportunity to sit and visit with him.

At lunch, I told him of my dream that his music be properly published and available. He was enthusiastic about the idea; he was pleased with the book Hal Leonard had already published and fully expected to continue his association with them. His pianist, Chris Neville, was assembling a book of his lead sheets, and Benny wanted me to work on it with him. Neither project happened. I offered to work on the lead sheet book gratis, but Benny found that unacceptable.

Earlier, I said that Benny has finally found an appreciative audience that loves his music and loves to play it. This phase of his career began when he started teaching at Princeton University in 1969. He revised his earlier scores and continued to write new music, initially for students and then later for concerts with all-star bands. I’ve spoken to one or two students who studied with him while he was at Princeton, and they described a warm, gracious, highly skilled musician who was open to any kind of music. It is clear that he changed their lives.

Sierra Music published his Kansas City Suite for Count Basie. Many middle and high schools in the U.S. now have at least one of the sectionsBasie KC Suite in their books. Here was true educational music: written for professionals, playable by amateurs and students. The writing is perfect for training an ensemble to become an even better one, and the chord structures are interesting but basic enough for young improvisers. Now, a lot of young players know who Benny is. Jazz Lines Publications now has an agreement with the Carter estate; 29 Carter compositions and arrangements have been released so far (many for big band, but some for saxophone ensemble), and they are among the company’s biggest sellers, to the surprise and delight of Ed Berger and Hilma Carter. There is more to come: more compositions (some quite modern) and even arrangements that he prepared for vocalists. Quite a few of the works are at Brigham Young University, repository of a collection of scores recorded for Capitol Records.

The beauty of great art is that it lives on to entertain, enlighten and inspire people many years after it was created. Benny Carter’s music has finally come into its own with those who will keep the tradition of big bands and combos alive for many years to come.

Jeff’s previous Rifftides piece concerned Gerry Mulligan’s unperformed arrangement of “Yardbird Suite” for Charlie Parker and strings. It came in two parts, here and here, and it contains a link to a synthesized performance of the arrangement.

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  1. says

    I recently ploughed through the Benny Carter Biography “A Life In American Music” by Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James Patrick. Academic and a bit heavy-going at times but worthwhile. I have also appreciated concerts from LA Jazz Institute and other groups put together, often involving Ira Nepus, where Benny’s music has been explored. Benny’s legacy of music and arrangements written during his spell in the UK was part of the standard repertoire for big band broadcasts here when I was growing up.