Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Benny Carter!

August 8

Saxophonist/trumpeter/composer/arranger Benny Carter is born in New York City in 1907. Carter wasn’t the greatest alto saxophonist in jazz history; but he was close (behind Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges). Along with Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, his relaxed rhythmic conception created the pulse of the Swing Era. Carter wasn’t the best trumpeter–in fact, he taught himself to play it years after he’d made the big time–but no less an authority than Miles Davis said of him that the instant he joined a band, he immediately became its best trumpet player. Although he rarely recorded on the clarinet–yes, he played that too, and tenor, trombone and piano–critics such as Dan Morgenstern rate him as one of the best jazz has ever seen. He wasn’t the greatest arranger–Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn surpassed him in the Swing Era, and Gil Evans later on. But he was one of the best–and unsurpassed when it came to writing for the saxophone section. In fact, in the early 1930s he was using advanced harmonies that presaged bebop by over a decade. His bands weren’t quite as original as Ellington’s, powerful as Count Basie’s or commercially successful as Benny Goodman’s (although Carter’s arrangements for Goodman in the mid-1930s led to the Goodman band’s earliest successes)–but they were consistently excellent, often ahead of their time and served as an unofficial advanced degree program for musicians. He wrote a half dozen jazz standards and two dozen more that should be, according to his biographer, Ed Berger. He was one of the music’s greatest talent scouts, as players such as pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Max Roach, Davis, trombonist J.J. Johnson all passed through his orchestras on their way to immortality. Again, we turn to Miles Davis, who told critic Leonard Feather that “Everybody ought to listen to Benny. He’s a whole musical education.” Carter so commanded the respect of his fellow musicians that he became known as “The King.” In addition to his instrumental and compositional skills, Carter was a civil rights pioneer, albeit a quiet one: He was the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood studio musicians, the first African-American to compose music for major film and television studios, paving the way for Quincy Jones and others. Carter made important recordings in nine decades before his death in 2003, a feat that will never be duplicated. The young Benny Carter, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble San Juan Hill area of Manhattan (where Lincoln Center now stands) began his career playing and writing for Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Club Orchestra, one of the most popular Jazz Age ensembles, in 1927. A watermark in his development occurred when he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the early 1930s. He has told many–including this writer–that he learned how to arrange by breaking down Henderson’s path-breaking charts and studying them on his apartment floor. Carter spent a few years in Europe in the 1930s, where he was lionized by fans of “hot” music. He assembled one exceptional big band after another, but the formula for commercial success always eluded him. Meanwhile, he was making dozens of classic recordings–in the States and in Europe, with his close friend saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Django Reinhardt. Benny Carter is a titanic figure in 20th-century music–and yet he is little-known outside the jazz world. It’s almost impossible to choose one, two or even a dozen recordings that best represent the King, but we’ll try. Listen to his masterful arrangement of his tune, “Symphony in Riffs,” from pre-Swing Era 1934, here:

And here’s some of the greatest sax soli writing you’ll ever hear, on his 1938 recording of “I’m Coming, Virginia,” that Carter made in Paris with Django Reinhardt: