Benny Carter

Album Cover: Further Definitions

Compiled by Louise Vogel

As Duke Ellington once wrote: “The problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he.”
Bennett Lester Carter was born in New York City in 1907, and was largely self-taught, but by age fifteen, began sitting in at Harlem night spots. He started playing trumpet as a side man for some of New York’s top bands from 1924 to 1928. He switched to saxophone and formed his own big band in 1929, played in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra from 1930-31, quickly becoming the band’s chief arranger.
Billboard Illustrated’s Encylopedia of Jazz & Blues says of Carter, “One of the great arrangers and soloists in jazz history, Carter wrote some of the first big-band music to fully realize the flowing, legato ensemble of the coming swing movement. His saxophone ensembles were smooth projections of his solo style. ‘Lonesome Nights’ and Symphony in Riffs’ were so advanced when Carter recorded them in 1933 that they still sounded at home in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and Cab Calloway recorded their versions. Carter worked in Europe during 1935-38 and returned to lead a series of excellent bands. He had a rich, poised alto sound that complemented the relaxed elegance of his phrasing.”

Throughout his prolific career, Carter worked and played with all of the major jazz artists, including Rex Stewart, Sidney Bechet, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones and others. (The list of fellow artists touched by his life is like an encyclopedia of jazz greats spanning 60 some years.) He was admired greatly and was referred to as “King” by his contemporaries.

Carter moved to California in 1945 and began working in Hollywood, writing for film and television. According to IJS Rutgers, “Carter also made major musical contributions to the world of film and television as one of the first black arrangers/composers to penetrate the Hollywood studios and a guiding force in the integration of the musicians unions.” He continued to work and play into his eighties.

In 1987 he created an endowment for Rutgers University, which now houses a special collection at the John Cotton Dana Library, Institute of Jazz Studies. It contains many sound tracks as well as hundreds of recordings (music and interviews). A sampling of those recordings are available through our site, jazzatthelibrary/links. The National Endowment for the Arts honored Benny Carter with its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Award for 1986. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, and both won a Grammy Award for his solo “Prelude to a Kiss” and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. In 2000 awarded the National Endowment for the Arts, and National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton.

Famous jazz critic Leonard Feather said of Benny Carter, “There is literally nobody else like him…no other musician who has made as many different contributions, on such a consistently high level, and for such an extended period of time, to America’s music of the twentieth century. He is still one of the greatest jazz soloists who ever lived.”

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