The Kennedy Center

Benny Carter


Benny Carter
(musician; born August 8, 1907, New York, New York; died July 12, 2003)

A prolific composer, a trailblazing big band leader, an influential arranger, a teacher, a pioneer in Hollywood's racial integration, and a killer saxophonist, pianist, trumpeter, and clarinetist, Carter is one of the true Renaissance men of jazz. Over the past seven decades he has shaped the course of his field, while his melodies have, inexorably and without fanfare, been woven into the tapestry of American music. His lengthy career provides a legacy so rich that a 1983 radio tribute on his 77th birthday marking his contribution to the world of jazz broadcast his music nonstop for 177 hours. Best known to the public as a saxophonist, Carter is praised for his originality and balance of his improvisation, his impeccable musicianship, his intricate melodic inventions. The sheer appeal of his writing has attracted an astonishingly diverse array of singers and instrumentalists: Eubie Blake, Guy Lombardo, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, the Judds, Toots Thielemans, Mel Torme, the Ink Spots, Billy Eckstine, Marian McPartland, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Billie Holliday, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Pearl Bailey, and Peggy Lee, to name just a few. As Duke Ellington once said: "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."

The first recording of a Carter song dates back to 1928 when a vocalist named Johnny Thompson recorded "Nobody Knows How Much I Love You." Since that modest beginning Carter has turned out hundreds of songs in every conceivable idiom--ballads , blues, bossa novas, waltzes, love songs, and specialty songs--but always remaining true to himself and to his music. Perhaps that is why he has survived every era, movement, and fad.

Carter began jamming in Harlem nightclubs at the age of 15 and throughout the 1920s quickly established a hot reputation as a cool saxophonist in stints with the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Charlie Johnson, Cab Calloway, and then with his own band.

By the 1930s he was recognized as a major jazz soloist and had also come into his own as an arranger. His band now included many musicians who would go on to become major forces in '30s jazz. He wrote for the bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey, and just as swing was beginning to sweep the country--the sound which in no small part he helped create--Carter left for Europe where he worked extensively for the rest of the decade.

Returning home, he settled in Hollywood in the 1940s and became one of the first black musicians to penetrate the Hollywood studios as instrumentalist, arranger, and composer. "Benny opened the eyes of a lot of producers and studios, so that they could understand that you could go to blacks for other things outside blues and barbecue." said the Academy Award-winning composer and producer Quincy Jones. " He was the pioneer, he was the foundation." Carter's film and television credits include Stormy Weather, View from Pompey's Head, The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, An American in Paris, Town Without Pity, The Guns of Navarone, Buck and the Preacher, "M Squad," "Ironsides," "Name of the Game," and "Run for Your Life."

During his years in Hollywood, which spanned four decades, Carter continued to tour as a soloist with the worldwide traveling jam session known as Jazz at the Philharmonic. Carter resumed his regular nightclub appearances in the mid-'70s and in 1987, he once again fronted a big band--the American Jazz Orchestra--for tribute concerts of his own music at New York's Cooper Union and Lincoln Center. That same year, Carter received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1988 the United Stated Congress designated Carter a "National Treasure of Jazz," and the following year he was invited to perform at the White House. He capped the '80s as the subject of a documentary film: Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs (1990).

Not the least among Carter's contributions to jazz is his generosity in sharing his knowledge with younger generations of musicians through seminars and workshops at universities throughout the country. After spending several semesters at Princeton, the school awarded him an honorary doctorate. "Everybody ought to listen to Benny," said Miles Davis. "He's a whole musical education."

His musical activities continue unabated. In 1992, Carter premiered his first composition for jazz big band and chamber orchestra, the five-movement Harlem Renaissance Suite. A sweeping meditation on the place and mood that was his musical birthplace, Harlem in the '20s, it is a fitting reflection on a life rich with achievement.

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