Bennett Lester Carter, 8 August 1907, New York City, New York, USA, d. 12 July 2003, Los Angeles, California, USA. Carter was born and raised in the area of New York known as San Juan Hill, a tough neighbourhood. His working-class parents encouraged their children to take up music and Carter and his two sisters received piano tuition from their mother, Sadie Bennett Carter. A cousin, Theodore Cuban Bennett, was a well-known trumpeter in New York jazz clubs in the 20s, while another cousin, Darnell Howard, played clarinet with the bands of W.C. Handy, King Oliver and Carroll Dickerson in the 20s. Apart from his mothers tuition, Carter took early lessons on the C-melody saxophone from a succession of teachers, among them Harold Proctor and Lt. Eugene Mickell Snr. Musician neighbours of Carter, in his youth, included Bubber Miley, Freddy Johnson, Rudy Powell, Russell Procope and Bobby Stark. He was already familiar with the Harlem jazz scene when, in 1923, his family settled there.
By the late 20s, Carter, who had by then switched to the alto saxophone, was becoming known as a reliable and dedicated young musician who had gained valuable experience in bands led by Billy Fowler, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. In 1928 he was working in the band led by Fletchers brother, Horace Henderson. When Horace left, Carter took over as leader. Despite engagements at top dancehalls, the band proved short-lived, owing, in part, to Carters personal manner and attitude towards music. A naturally elegant man and musically a perfectionist and utter professional, he refused to resort to the kind of flash and showmanship audiences expected. After the band folded, Carter worked as musical director of McKinneys Cotton Pickers, a period during which he began to develop his interest in arranging.
During the early 30s Carter also played trumpet, surprising fellow musicians with the ease at which he switched from reeds to brass and back again. By this time he was also adept on clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone and piano. He pursued his interest in writing, providing arrangements for many leading bands of the day, including those of Chick Webb, for whom he also played alto, and Benny Goodman. In 1933, he formed a new big band, which featured Chu Berry and Dicky Wells. In this same year he also played on recording sessions organized by British composer-bass player Spike Hughes. In 1935 he joined Willie Lewes band, with which he visited Europe. In all, Carter was away for three years, working in several countries including France, Holland and Denmark. At the urging of writer Leonard Feather, he was hired by Henry Hall as staff arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra in London. In 1938, aware of the commercial successes of the swing era back in the USA, he returned home and formed a new big band. Once again, his refusal to compromise his standards meant that the band enjoyed little commercial success. He also recorded extensively on small group sessions, such as Lionel Hamptons RCA Records recordings, for some of which he wrote arrangements. Other bands included the Chocolate Dandies, in which he played alongside Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, and the Varsity Seven.
In 1942 Carter settled in California, formed a new big band and signed with agent Carlos Gastel, who also handled Nat King Cole, Sonny Dunham and Stan Kenton. Employed to write for films, Carter proved a fast learner and, although he was sometimes uncredited, because African Americans had yet to achieve full status in Hollywood, he worked on numerous scores for 20th Century-Fox, Warner Brothers and MGM. In the winter of 1946/7 Carter folded his big band for the last time but continued to re-form it for special recording sessions. In the early 50s he began touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic and made numerous records for Norman Granz. He also arranged and provided orchestral backing for a host of singers, notably Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé.
A heart attack in January 1956 barely slowed Carter down and he remained active in his writing and playing; the same year he married for the fourth time. The late 50s and early 60s were especially fruitful times and he composed, arranged and played on a succession of important albums, including Aspects, Further Definitions and Additions To Further Definitions. He also wrote a major work for Count Basie, the Kansas City Suite. By now he was also working in television and touring the international festival circuit. In the early 70s Carter began a continuing association with Princeton University, where he became Visiting Lecturer in the Council of Humanities and the African-American Studies Programme. His personal contact with Morroe Berger at Princeton led to the appearance of Bergers major biography, Benny Carter: A Life In American Music (1982). During the 70s Carter began a regular string of visits to Japan, where he became extremely popular, and also continued to record, again for Norman Granz. In the 80s Carter toured and recorded, on many occasions scoring and composing extensively. In 1987 he joined forces with John Lewis and the All-American Jazz Orchestra, an occasionally assembled repertory band dedicated to the performance of music especially written for big bands. For a concert and subsequent recording session, Carter composed and arranged a new major work, Central City Sketches. Additionally, he rehearsed the orchestra, conducted, played solo alto and drew from the musicians taking part admiration, enthusiasm and a sparkling performance. In the late summer of 1989 the Classical Jazz series of concerts at New Yorks Lincoln Center celebrated his 82nd birthday with a set of his songs, sung by Ernestine Anderson and Sylvia Syms. In the same week, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, he presented a recreation of his Further Definitions album, using some of the original musicians. In February 1990, Carter led an all-star big band at the Lincoln Center in a concert tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. Events such as these added to the endless and imperishable catalogue of achievements of this remarkable man. In 1995 a tribute album of sorts was issued, and unusually, Carter was present on the project. It featured some beautiful vocal treatments of Carters work, including tracks from Ruth Brown, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Peggy Lee.
It was probably Ben Webster who first dubbed Carter The King, a name that stuck because, unlike titles bestowed by outsiders, this one was offered in tribute to qualities that jazz musicians themselves esteemed. As a player, on any of his many instruments, Carter was skilled and always inventive and a delight to hear. It is on alto saxophone, however, that he made his greatest contribution. A liquid player in the tradition of Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith, the two contemporary giants with whom he is usually grouped, Carter displayed a striking pungency and an effortless capacity for creating solos of interest and fascination. As a composer of tunes such as Doozy and When Lights Are Low he contributed greatly to the jazz catalogue. As an arranger in the 30s he was a major force in shaping big band music and continued to demonstrate his skills in this area and in small group settings to lasting effect. His longevity and the fact that neither his playing nor writing skills showed any signs of diminishing right up to his death are truly remarkable. Many mourned his death in 2003 as the passing of probably the last great link between early jazz and the present day.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.