“I don’t know that I’ve made any real contribution.
I’ve done what I’ve set out to do.”
– Benny Carter
A lot of jazz musicians have come and gone, but I don’t think any had a life like Benny Carter. But what can you say about a man whose career spanned eight decades? Actually, quite a bit, but I don’t want to bog down on chronological facts. So here are some adjectives:
elegant, suave, harmonious
You probably never heard of Benny Carter for he spent most of his career just a step out of the limelight. He may have been one of the most talented musicians to pick up the alto saxophone. He also played the trumpet, trombone and clarinet. But where Benny really made his mark was musical arrangements, sewing the underlying lines of the American musical cannon to where he created his own sound. If you need an example, just listen to Ray Charles’ “Busted.” That’s Benny’s horns.
“The problem of expressing the contributions
Benny Carter made to popular music is so
tremendous, it completely fazes me.”
Born in Harlem in 1907, Benny took to music at a very early age. Self-taught at every phase, by fifteen he was playing professional gigs. By nineteen he was arranging music for big bands. By his early twenties, everybody from Gene Krupa to Benny Goodman was asking Benny for help.
sophisticated, bright, inventive
What made Benny successful more than most was his multiple talents. He wasn’t a one-trick pony. He could play as well as arrange. He led big bands and also played as a sideman. He composed as well as taught. He wrote music for Hollywood and he even toured for the State Department. In fact, there is one word to describe this type of life—flowing. If something did not work out, Benny already had five other things lined up. He was far too talented to let failure get in the way. He was a consummate professional, who constantly improved his craft. Many outside the industry never noticed, but there was one select group that cherished him more than most – his peers.
“Everybody ought to listen to Benny.
He’s the whole musical education.
– Miles Davis
Benny wasn’t an American musical star. He was part of the foundation. He is one of the few musicians who actually grew better as he accumulated years. His sound never grew old. He was totally incapable of growing irrelevant. He may be the only musician who won more Grammys after receiving a lifetime achievement award (1987). He won Jazz Artist of the Year from both Down Beat and Jazz Times when he was 83. When he turned ninety, he celebrated his birthday by having a concert in Oslo, Norway. How many people get there name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as receiving a National Medal of Arts from the NEA? Benny did. He also picked up a few Honorary Doctorates from a few places like Princeton and Harvard.
But that was for music. What made Benny cooler than most is how he lived his life. Although described as low-key and humble, he was no wallflower. Even though he was not one to stand on the mountaintop and make a stand, he did subtly and relentlessly beat back the racism he encountered at every turn. He challenged the ugly beast on many fronts when he formed the first international-interracial Big Band in Holland; called Europe his second home when he became tired of the treatment in the first; fought legal battles to live where he wanted in Los Angeles no matter the era or the exclusivity of the neighborhood, and challenged the current belief that an African American could indeed compose original music for the television and movie industry.
Through it all Benny Carter remained. There were no bouts with drugs, midnight arrests or multiple marriages. There was his love of music and the steady rise that is rarely seen in the industry.
“My good old days are here and now.”
– Benny Carter
My brother Chad was lucky enough to see Benny when the twilight years were burning their brightest. It was in Chicago at an outdoor musical festival. It was such a beautiful day and enjoyable concert Chad and his girlfriend remained well after the last song filtered through the humid air. They sat on a blanket on the open bluff and watched the crew break down the set.
Then Benny walked by.
Chad got up and thanked him for a wonderful concert, and being the consummate professional, Benny engaged with a little chit chat. He asked Chad where he was from Chad replied and returned the same question. Benny’s response:
“I live in Southern California, but I spend a great deal of time in Europe. But don’t hold that against me. If you’re going to hold anything against me, let it be Lena Horne.”
Image by fangol