When Benny Carter died in 2003, he was just a month short of his 96th birthday — and only a few years removed from performing. From his beginnings in the late 1920’s, he was a force in jazz for eight decades. But it would be wrong to attribute his legacy to his longevity, as special as it was, because he was much more than that. His talents as a performer, arranger, and composer, on display through several generations of jazz, made him one of the greats.
And yet, he was relatively unknown to the general public, and even jazz aficionados often seemed to overlook him, seldom including him in discussions of notable alto saxmen. But knowledgeable fans – and other musicians – knew better. In fact, his colleagues gave him a special nickname – the King – and some rank him as one of the best ever.
He began as a trumpeter but soon switched to sax, and the alto became his signature instrument, although he kept his trumpet handy and eventually became proficient on tenor sax, clarinet, and even piano. Through the years, he was at home in almost every incarnation of jazz, and his crystal-clear, sweet and melodic playing style was always marked by his ability to improvise brilliantly without losing his way in a piece, something that many musicians seem to find difficult.
He formed his first band in 1928 and spent the next few years in the New York area, performing in clubs and contributing music and arrangements to other jazz bands, including those of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. During this period he wrote and recorded some songs that sold well, but real stardom eluded him. In the mid 1930’s he moved to Europe, where he spent a few years with some success before returning to the US late in the decade.
During the war years and after, Benny kept busy in a number of ways, either as the leader of his own band or a variety of smaller groups that included future legends such as Miles Davis. He eventually moved to Hollywood and began a period of great success writing and performing movie music, even occasionally appearing on screen.
In his middle years, he continued to perform and record with various groups, but leaned more to composing and arranging, and his work was in great demand. His honors piled up, and in 1987 he was given the Grammy lifetime achievement award. Amazingly, he followed that up a few years later by winning two more Grammys – one for composing and one for performing – while in his 80’s!
I would urge music lovers to rediscover this too-often forgotten jazz legend. He’s left behind an enormous body of work, and most of it is still available on his dozens of albums. You won’t be disappointed.