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Benny Carter, 1907-2003
Benny Carter had been famous for many things, but late in the 1990s it seemed like the thing he was most famous for was his age. I saw him play once -- in early 1996 I think -- when he was a sprightly 88-year-old out promoting his latest album, Songbook. He had brought Phil Woods along, and while Woods was 24 years younger, he looked worse for the wear. Carter told several stories that night, including one about how a dinner guest asked him whether it was true that jazz musicians could read music. Carter responded that while it was true in the early days of jazz that some musicians couldn't read, he didn't know anyone nowadays who couldn't. Then they pulled out some sheet music and played a piece that they claimed never to have practiced before. Carter obviously found this amusing, for he remembered what many other people forget, which is how young Carter was when he got his start, playing professionally at 15, arranging for Charlie Johnson at 19, and leading his own band at 21.
So Carter's death on July 12, a month shy of his 96th birthday, doesn't come as a shock -- just as something that for him seems sort of out of character. It breaks one more bond with the past: it is, for example, rather mind boggling that Carter was first encouraged to play trumpet by his neighbor, Bubber Miley, who became Duke Ellington's first trumpet star, and who passed away more than 70 years ago. The late Doc Cheatham went back even farther -- who else can you think of who learned trumpet before Louis Armstrong recorded? -- but Cheatham was just two years younger, played in Carter's early bands, and gave Carter his first trumpet lessons. The times that Carter and Cheatham connect to is now all but unfathomable. Nowadays budding jazz musicians not only read music, they spend years in college and beyond studying. Carter, on the other hand, was self-taught, yet had such an intuitive understanding of how to put big band arrangements together that he found himself arranging everywhere he went, and he developed such mystique for his musical expertise that figures as imposing as Ellington deferred to him.
Yet of all the top rank of jazz musicians, Carter is surprisingly overlooked. For instance, in Ken Burns' long jazz survey, I can only recall one mention in passing. One can guess at the reasons, most obviously the long stretch in the middle of his career when he was in Hollywood, working hard but out of the spotlight. Maybe his sheer versatility worked against him -- kind of like the baseball player Martin DiHigo, who played eight positions so superbly he was never identified as the best at any one. Also Carter never really settled on a distinctive style or concept -- the closest he came to a trademark sound was perhaps his ensemble sax voicings, but whereas Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Art Pepper and Jackie McLean were instantly recognizable by tone, the most distinctive thing about Carter's alto sax was his clear, crisp logic. Which come to think about it was also the most distinctive thing about his trumpet. But eventually he did find a gimmick that caught the public's eye: to live a very long time and do so with astonishing vigor and grace.
One last thing -- a quote from Quincy Jones after visiting with Carter in the hospital: "He said he had lived, for 95 years, the greatest life he could ask for, and he wanted to leave us like he lived with us, which was in such dignity." Which leaves us with his music, of which here are some of the high points:
McKinney's Cotton Pickers: The Band That Don Redman Built (1928-30 , RCA Bluebird). The band name may have been a stereotype, but Redman's music was remarkably fresh and sophisticated, and his own vocals had a sly, talky humor that would have hit even bigger in the rock and roll era. He periodically raided Fletcher Henderson's band for ace musicians, nabbing Carter and Coleman Hawkins in late 1929, then Fats Waller and Rex Stewart. Carter only appears on eight cuts here, but he cuts a dashing figure, and plays a little clarinet. A-
Benny Carter: "Devil's Holiday" (1933-34 , JSP). Not his earliest recordings, but a representative sample of his own orchestra and his work with the Chocolate Dandies and Mezz Mezzrow. From the git-go Carter was a renaissance man, playing alto sax, clarinet, and trumpet (his solo on "Swingin' With Mezz" got props from Armstrong), composing, arranging, singing even -- although he was too suave and too formal to last as a vocalist. B+
Coleman Hawkins & Benny Carter (1935-46 , DRG). Hawkins and Carter first toured Europe in 1935, relishing the admiration they received and using their newfound freedom to dramatically advance their art. In particular, the April 28, 1937 session is a landmark in the history of jazz saxophone, with Carter's two tenor/two alto arrangements, Hawkins' dance-around-the-melody solos, and Django Reinhardt's nonpareil rhythm guitar. The cuts, especially "Crazy Rhythm" and "Honeysuckle Rose," are available on dozens of collections, but this compilation, leading off with masterful Hawkins work from 1935 and closing with a Carter band in 1946, is as good a place as any to spotlight them -- even if the tenor sax that tears up the final cut belongs to Ben Webster. A-
The Complete Benny Carter: The Essential Keynote Collection 7 (1946 , Mercury). This collects two sessions, one originally under the leadership of pianist Arnold Ross, including multiple takes of most pieces. Both bands feature Carter playing beautifully, accompanied by guitar, piano, bass, and drums, with the guitar in particular (Allan Reuss on the Ross sessions, "unknown" on the others) setting up a delicious light swing reminiscent of Django Reinhardt. A
Charlie Parker Jam Session (1952 , Verve). Producer Norman Granz up to his usual tricks, which in this case was to set up a summit meeting for the three grand masters of the alto sax: Carter, Parker, and Johnny Hodges. This session has always been a bit of an embarrassment for Carter, who fluffs the melody on his ballad feature. But as a cutting contest it has to be scored a draw, with all three resolutely unique. Besides, if it had really been a brawl, I'd put my money on Ben Webster, a/k/a the Brute. B+
Benny Carter: 3, 4, 5: The Verve Small Group Sessions (1952-54 , Verve). The trio dates with Teddy Wilson and Jo Jones are dream sessions, particularly rich with Wilson's piano. The quartets with George Duvivier (bass), Louis Bellson (drums), and Don Abney (piano) are more workmanlike, but Carter and Duvivier hit it off, launching a lengthy association. The quintet with Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis hints at future greatness. Carter plays impeccably, of course. A-
Benny Carter: Cosmopolite: The Oscar Peterson Sessions (1952-54 , Verve). Sooner or later everyone Norman Granz signed got their chance to meet Oscar Peterson. In fact, the safest bet in jazz shopping is to glance through Verve's catalog and pick out every title where "[Big Name] meets Oscar Peterson": Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, even (way later on) Ralph Moore. There's nothing mysterious to these sessions: Peterson has always been a remarkably empathetic accompanist, but he also had the sheer talent to play in any company. This is Carter's turn, and it's some of his most exuberant work ever. A
Art Tatum, Benny Carter, Louis Bellson: The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (1954 , Pablo). Another of Granz's "get rich slow" schemes was to pair the astonishing piano virtuoso with a succession of small groups. We should be grateful, since this series is very nearly the only encounters between Tatum and horn players, and the need to coordinate with other players helps to keep Tatum in the same universe as his listeners. This is the first of the series, and all three players manage to get in their licks. In fact, Bellson's drum solo on "Undecided" is a highlight. A-
Benny Carter: Jazz Giant (1957-58 , Contemporary). The first song features Carter on alto sax, playing beautifully. He then switches to trumpet for the second song, where he's letter perfect, even with a little blues feel. Others have played both instruments (Ornette Coleman, Joe McPhee), but never with such aplomb. With Ben Webster, Frank Rosolino, Barney Kessell, and others on hand, there is an abundance of riches here, all tucked in with Carter's impeccable taste. A-
Benny Carter: All of Me (1934-59 , RCA Bluebird). This is a real grab bag: mostly hot, brassy 1940-41 sessions with his big band, plus widely scattered sideman dates (with Mezz Mezzrow in 1934, Ethel Waters in 1939, Artie Shaw in 1941, Lucky Thompson in 1947, and a spiffy "Sheik of Araby" with Willie Bryant in 1935), ending with four cuts from his M Squad TV soundtrack. Each has its own fascination, making you wonder how much more like it there is. The common theme, natch, is the richness of the sax arrangements, which on the TV material approaches a frenzied pitch. A-
Benny Carter: Further Definitions (1961-66 , Impulse). Carter's 1961 masterpiece rejoined him with Coleman Hawkins, further defining "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Crazy Rhythm" from their landmark 1937 sessions, along with six comparable standards, including "Cotton Tail" and "Body and Soul." The two missing French saxes were replaced by Charlie Rouse and Phil Woods, and the unison playing, as well as the painstakingly charted solos, is just magnificent. The thankless Django Reinhardt role went to John Collins, who mostly stays out of the way, but bassist Jimmy Garrison really shines here. The 1997 reissue also tacks on Carter's Additions to Further Definitions, cut in 1966 with weaker material and less stellar musicians -- the drop off is real, but it's unlikely you'll reach for the "reject" button. A
The King (1976 , Pablo). Pablo was Norman Granz's new label after he cashed in Verve, and he kicked it off by rounding up many of his old cohorts -- including Milt Jackson, Joe Pass, and Tommy Flanagan, all sidemen here. Carter was pushing 70 at the time, so a nice recital of his songbook seemed to be in order. Nowadays, this looks more like the beginning of his 20-year span as the grand old man of swing. As for the title, Clark Terry explains: "We always called him the king, because he was probably the most highly respected musician of the whole lot of us." In his liner notes, Granz cites other sources, not the least a mere Duke. A-
A Gentleman and His Music (1985, Concord). When Scott Hamilton came around in the late '70s, he was a young man playing in a style that was already mainstream in the '50s, when trumpeter Joe Wilder first made his mark, and that was ultimately based twenty years before that, in the swing music that cutting edge progressives like Benny Carter invented. So if Hamilton is a "new fogey," that may make Wilder an "old fogey," but where does that leave Carter? Actually, "living legend" sounds about right. B+
Benny Carter/The American Jazz Orchestra: Central City Sketches (1987, Musicmasters). The AJO was a project that jazz critic Gary Giddins championed, aimed at providing a first rate jazz repertory orchestra to rival the finest classical music confabs -- the idea being that if jazz is America's classical music, it's as deserving of live concert performance as any of that musty old European shit. The AJO's first project was to present a program of Jimmie Lunceford music, but given that Lunceford's arranger, Sy Oliver, learned much of his craft from Carter back when they were both in the employ of Fletcher Henderson, a Carter program was an obvious project. Especially when they could get the man himself to come in, arrange, conduct, and solo. B+
Marian McPartland: Plays the Benny Carter Songbook (1990, Concord). Perhaps because her radio program exposes her to such a wide range of fine musicians, McPartland's become an erudite interpreter of the jazz tradition. Over the years she's done a number of songbook albums, but what makes this one stand out, aside from the surpassing loveliness of the melodies, is the presence of Benny Carter, who plays with beautiful precision on this, the most delightful of all his songbook revivals. But McPartland fills in so superbly you hardly notice that Carter lays out on half the cuts. A
Benny Carter: Harlem Renaissance (1992, Musicmasters, 2CD). Any 85th birthday is something to celebrate, but nobody else has ever celebrated it like this: he writes two brand new suites for big band and strings, organizes a star-studded big band (names like Frank Wess and Loren Schoenberg jump out of the roster), and stages a mammoth concert producing two discs of exquisitely arranged neoclassical swing. A-
Benny Carter: Elegy in Blue (1994, Musicmasters). This is Carter's tribute album -- not to his forebears, since there really weren't that many of them, but to nine esteemed colleagues who passed before him, each treated to one of their signature songs. Plus a tenth piece, the title track, written by Carter for a fan and friend, Dr. Kiyoshi Makita. Carter just plays alto sax here -- he gave up the trumpet when he passed 80, in this case to 78-year-old Sweets Edison, whose trumpet is still better than his Armstrong-tribute vocal. A-
Benny Carter: Songbook (1996, Musicmasters). One more pass through the songbook, with Warren Vache's cornet complementing Carter's alto sax, as comfortable as your favorite easy chair. But this time the songs are set for vocalists, with 14 guest singers ranging from Peggy Lee to Diana Krall to Jon Hendricks -- the latter tackling Carter's least-typical credit, "Cow-Cow Boogie." Dianne Reeves' take on "Only Trust Your Heart" is exceptionally lithe, but overall this starts to resemble one of those superstar tribute albums, except you wonder to whom? Until, that is, you listen to the alto sax. B+
Note on availability: Everything above has been released on CD, but quite a bit of it is currently out of print. The early material on the RCA, DRG and Mercury (Keynote) comps is likely to be available on other releases, mostly on European labels which have become the final resting place for most American music more than 50 years old. Also out of print are the more recent Musicmasters albums; barring further copyright law changes we can look forward to their rediscovery starting in 2037. On the other hand, Carter's music from 1929-1952 is mostly available now, most comprehensively in the nine volumes of The Chronological Benny Carter, on the Classics label. A single CD comp of 1930-1937 Carter material that is likely to be a good introduction is Symphony in Riffs, on ASV -- haven't heard it, but ASV's similar Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Lester Young comps are excellent introductions.