Benny Carter was born in New York City on August 8, 1907. He died in 2003 less than a month before his 96th birthday. Observances of Carter’s centennial include a Hollywood Bowl concert on his birthday and the release of two new CDs. Welcome and deserved as they may be, those events are slight recognition of an artist whose broad gifts and creative consistency graced and influenced music for seven decades.
Here’s a little of what I wrote about Carter in the notes for Three Great Swing Saxophonists, a 1989 CD that included some of his best work from 1929 to 1941.
At the height of his career, he played alto, tenor, clarinet and trumpet, composed, arranged, and sometimes played piano and sang. He is–along with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker–one of the three great original alto sylists in jazz. He wrote arrangements in the mid-’30s that sound fresh today. He was a natural born leader and teacher and one of the most important catalysts in jazz history. At the age of 81, as this is written, Carter plays elegant alto, and trumpet when he feels like it. He was deeply involved in a 1988 concert of his music by the American Jazz Orchestra, which he rehearsed to within an inch of its life. He travels the world as a performer and writes music with today and tomorrow in mind. He refuses to discuss his past triumphs, explaining simply but firmly, “I’m not much interested in nostalgia.”
Parker, Hodges, Carter
One of the new albums is among the last Carter made as a saxophonist, the other a tribute to Carter by more than a dozen of his colleagues and admirers. The San Francisco tenor saxophonist Mel Martin struck up a friendship with Carter in the late 1980s and became a sort of musical Boswell to Carter’s Johnson, featuring and promoting Carter compositions in his own performances. He went Boswell one better and collaborated in a full partnership with the great man he so admired. That resulted in a 1994 engagement at the Oakland music emporium Yoshi’s and the Martin-Carter quintet CD Just Friends. The rhythm section–pianist Roger Kellaway, bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Harold Jones–is superb. Carter and Martin play to and for one another with relaxation and an infectious sense of fun. Some of the pieces, “Perdido,” “Secret Love,” “Just Friends,” have the air of a jam session about them, but any jam session involving Benny Carter had underlying order. The CD includes two gorgeous, little-heard Carter pieces, “People Time” and “Elegy in Blue.”
The Benny Carter Centennial Project presents, in various combinations, musicians including Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, Warren Vaché, Bill Kirchner, Joe Wilder, John Coates, Loren Schoenberg, James Chirillo, Russell Malone and Carter’s last rhythm section–Chris Neville, piano; Steve LaSpina, bass; and Steve Johns, drums. All of the compositions are Carter’s, and he makes a rare appearance without a saxophone.
In ubiquity, urbanity and skill, if not in style, Woods is a younger counterpart of Carter. He and Carter were fast friends and recorded together memorably on several occasions. In the Centennial Project, he contributes achingly beautiful duets with pianist Coates on the ballads “Johnny” and “Other Times.” On soprano saxophone, Bill Kirchner combines delicacy and deep understanding of Carter’s melodic essence in his reading of the master’s longtime theme song, “Melancholy Lullaby.” A five-man sax section headed by Schoenberg rolls out perfectly interpreted performances of two of Carter’s greatest arrangements, “I’m Coming Virginia” and “All of Me.”
Trumpeters Vaché and Sandke nail the spirit of “I’m in the Mood for Swing,” best known for the ingenuity and propulsion of Carter’s sax section writing in a 1938 Lionel Hampton all-star recording with Harry James shining in solo. Sandke in “Again and Again” and Vaché in “Key Largo” team with the rhythm section for solo spots. In “Far Away,” “Echo of My Dream” and “South Side Samba,” Neville, LaSpina and Johns display the lightness and firmness that Carter appreciated in them as accompanists. Neville rolls out his modern stride in “Fable of a Fool.” The final track is “All About You,” a ballad Carter wrote toward the end of his life and presented to guitarist Malone. Malone plays it alone, followed by Carter’s version on piano in 2001. It was his last recording, and he plays the piece with a tenderness that makes me wonder if he was more interested in nostalgia than he let on.
Here is a list of a few Carter CDs that I recommend.
All Of Me: Essential Carter from the 1930s and ’40s, with a smattering of his M Squad TV music of the 1950s.
Django Reinhardt All Star Sessions: Carter in Europe in the 1930s with the great guitarist and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. This includes celebrated versions of “Crazy Rhythm” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
They All Had Rhythm – ’45 and ’46 and Groovin’ High in L.A. 1946: Compilations including Carter’s big band, plus Jimmy Mundy’s, Gerald Wilson’s and Wilbert Baranco’s. Great arranging and playing by Carter, and fiery young soloists including, on Groovin’ High in L.A., Miles Davis.
Jazz Giant: Brilliant in every respect. With Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles, André Previn, Frank Rosolino, Barney Kessel, Leroy Vinegar and Shelly Manne.
Further Definitions: Carter’s masterpiece of the early 1960s, with Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods, Charlie Rouse and a powerhouse rhythm section. If you were limited to a collection of ten CDs, this would have to be one of them.
There are dozens of other Carter recordings. It would difficult to go wrong with any of them. You may want to go here and browse.
Michael J. West says
In addition to the alto-sax triumvirate, I like to think of Carter as the third man on a continuum with Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins: innovators of early jazz who endured through many eras, but never ceased to sound modern.
Phil Dwyer says
I love Benny, in fact I just purchased the music for “Symphony In Riffs” from the Smithsonian, and have programmed it in a few different concerts that I am doing in the next while. I hadn’t twigged to the centennial, so I guess it was the hand of fate guiding me…….I wish that happened more often (or that I paid attention to it).
Don Emanuel says
Thanks Doug, another lovely piece of writing about one of the most talented musicians in all of jazz.
I can’t think of a note he played or arranged (that I’ve heard) that wasn’t satisfying and illuminating.