The King of Jazz – yes there really was one

Benny Carter

Symphony in Riffs

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Alto saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger, composer, and leader Bennett Lester Carter was born on August 8, 1907, in New York City.

Carter, whose father was a guitarist and his mother played organ and piano, had piano lessons early on.

He originally wanted to be a trumpeter but, after he found that he could not master it after a few hours, he traded it at a music store for a C-melody sax although the trumpet (which he would later enjoy doubling on) would be his favorite instrument.

By 1924, Carter was playing alto-sax with June Clark’s band, followed by stints with Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators, Lois Deppe’s Serenaders, Earl Hines, Horace Henderson, and James P. Johnson.

In 1927 Carter made his recording debut with Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, already displaying a personal sound on alto.

During 1928-31, Carter played alto and contributed arrangements to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra before becoming the leader of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers during 1931-32.

Already at that early stage, Benny Carter was considered a major altoist (he and Johnny Hodges were the pacesetters), a solid trumpeter, and an important arranger-composer.

Carter led his own big band during 1932-34, worked with Willie Bryant, and spent 1935-38 in Europe where he was treated as musical royalty, being quite active and recording not only on alto and trumpet but clarinet, tenor, piano and as a singer.

Back in the U.S., Benny Cater led a big band during 1938-41, moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1943, led a big band for the next three years, worked extensively in the studios, and continued his career as a jazz soloist, touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic and leading many record dates.

While he mostly worked as a studio arranger during 1965-75, Carter returned to full-time playing for 20 more years before finally retiring in 1997 at the age of 90, still very much in his prime, 70 years after his initial recording.

He recorded a piano solo in 2001, making him probably the only musician to appear on records in nine different decades.

In addition to having his own sound and swing style on alto and trumpet, Benny Carter (who wrote a countless number of arrangements) composed such songs as “Blues In My Heart,” “Cow Cow Boogie” and “When Lights Are Low.”

Here’s the documentary from the 1990s featuring Benny Carter titled “Symphony in Riffs.”

-Scott Yanow


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