Benny Carter Biography

Born Bennett Lester Carter, August 8, 1907, in New York, NY; died of bronchitis and other ailments, July 12, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA. Musician and arranger. Award–winning jazz musician and arranger Benny Carter had a distinctive sound that was showcased most famously in his 1937 song "Honeysuckle Rose." His 1961 album, Further Definitions, which critics consider a masterpiece, remains one of jazz's most influential recordings.

Carter was the only son and the youngest of three children in his family. He grew up in one of the roughest Manhattan neighborhoods at that time, San Juan Hill, near what is now Lincoln Center. His formal education ceased after the eighth grade. His mother taught him piano and, through his cousin, Theodore (Cuban) Bennett, and Bubber Miley, a neighbor who played with Duke Ellington, Carter developed an interest in the trumpet. He saved for months and bought a trumpet at a pawn shop when he was 13, but, when he failed to master it after a weekend's effort, he traded it for a C–melody saxophone (having been told, erroneously, that that instrument was easier to learn). Carter, who was for the most part self–taught, counted Frankie Trumbauer as an early inspiration. By the age of 15 he was sitting in at night spots around Harlem.

In 1925, Carter married his first wife, who died of pneumonia three years later. He briefly attended Wilberforce College in Ohio, where he played with the Wilberforce Collegians, then toured with Horace Henderson. After brief stints with James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, and Ellington, he worked for more than a year with the Charlie Johnson Orchestra, his first full–time job. Carter formed his own group for New York's Arcadia ballroom in 1928 and somehow managed to teach himself to arrange music. That same year he recorded his first records, with the Charlie Johnson group, including two of his own arrangements. Later that year, he began working in a band led by pioneering big band arranger Fletcher Henderson, Horace Henderson's brother. The band was revitalized by Carter's innovative writing, especially his scores for the saxophone section, and he became an influential arranger who also wrote for Ellington and Benny Goodman. Shortly after joining the band, the 21–year–old Carter was chosen by its members to replace the leader, who had walked out during a tour.

In 1931, Carter became the musical director for the Detroit–based McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Having mastered the alto sax, he now took up the trumpet, and within a couple of years was recording trumpet parts that rivaled his alto work. On both instruments, he became known for envisioning a solo as a whole while still retaining spontaneity. The next year he returned to New York and began assembling his own orchestra, which eventually included swing stars such as Teddy Wilson, Dicky Wells, Chu Berry, and Sid Catlett. As was true of all the bands Carter led, the group, with its high musical standards, became known as a "musicians' band." He was helping to codify what would become the style and essence of swing music, stripping away the elaborate embellishment of dance bands, streamlining rhythm, and making improvisation and composition equal. Unfortunately, the band struggled for commercial success, especially during the Depression, and Carter was compelled to disband it.

At this time, an opportune invitation sent Carter to Paris, France, to play with the Willie Lewis Orchestra at a club called Chez Florence. After nine months, at the instigation of music critic Leonard Feather, he moved to England to work as an arranger for the BBC dance orchestra, writing a prodigious three to six arrangements weekly for a period of ten months. As he spent the next three years traveling throughout Europe, Carter became pivotal in spreading jazz abroad and changing its face permanently. He visited with American musicians such as his friend Coleman Hawkins and played and recorded with leading French, British, and Scandinavian jazz musicians. He also led the first international interracial group in Holland. Carter credited Doc Cheatham, with whom he played during this period, as his greatest influence on trumpet. He did not own a trumpet at the time, so Carter would use Cheatham's.

In 1938 Carter returned to New York to find the big band sound that he had helped to craft sweeping the nation. He recorded with Lionel Hampton and formed another orchestra, which played the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem for two years. His arrangements were much in demand, and appeared on recordings by Ellington, Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. Though he only had one major hit in the big–band era (a novelty song called "Cow–Cow Boogie," sung by Ella Mae Morse), during the 1930s Carter composed and/or arranged many of the pieces that became Swing Era classics, such as "When Lights Are Low," "Blues in My Heart," and "Lonesome Nights."

In 1941, Carter stripped down to a sextet that included bebop groundbreakers Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie. He also wrote arrangements for a radio show, Your Hit Parade. In 1942 he reorganized his band and moved to California, settling in Hollywood, where he would live for the rest of his life. In the mid–1940s, Carter's band included such leading modernists as Miles Davis, Art Pepper, Max Roach, and J.J. Johnson, all of whom have expressed a debt to Carter as an important mentor.

In Hollywood, Carter moved steadily into studio work. He was among the first African–American arrangers for films and in the 1950s led the integration of white and black musicians unions. In 1943 he wrote arrangements for and played on the soundtrack of the film Stormy Weather, although he did not receive a screen credit. From 1946, when he surrendered full–time work as leader of a big band, until 1970, he was virtually out of the public eye. He arranged scores for dozens of movies and, beginning in 1959, television programs. Among his film credits are The Snows of Kilamanjaro, The Flower Drum Song, and Martin Scorcese's Too Late Blues. Among his television credits are M Squad, the Alfred Hitchcock series, Banyon, Ironside, and The Chrysler Theater. He also toured occasionally as a soloist and with the Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble. Carter's arrangements were used by almost every significant popular jazz and blues singer of the era, including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, and Mel Tormé.

In 1969, Carter was persuaded by Morroe Berger, a sociology professor at Princeton University who had done his master's thesis on jazz, to spend a weekend at the college as part of some classes, seminars, and a concert. This led to a new outlet for Carter's talent: teaching. For the next nine years he visited Princeton five times, most of them brief stays except for one in 1973 when he spent a semester there as a visiting professor. In 1974 Princeton awarded him an honorary master of humanities degree. He conducted workshops and seminars at several other universities and was a visiting lecturer at Harvard for a week in 1987.

Carter's touring career was revitalized by his academic work. The U.S. State Department sponsored his tour of the Middle East in 1975, and the following year he played in a nightclub in New York City for the first time in more than three decades. Over the next 20 years Carter made dozens of new records, and much of his early work was reissued. He continued touring worldwide.

Carter received numerous accolades. In 1978, Carter was invited to the White House to lead a band as part of President Jimmy Carter's commemoration of the Newport Jazz Festival's 25th anniversary. In 1982, when Carter turned 75, New York's WKCR radio station commemorated his birthday by playing his music constantly for 177 hours. Carter received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1994, he won a Grammy for "Elegy in Blue." In 1996, Carter was among five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. That same year, the lauded documentary on Carter, Symphony in Riffs, was released on home video. In 2000 he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.

Carter was married five times, with three of the marriages ending in divorce. In 1979, he married his fifth wife, Hilma Ollila Arons, whom he met in 1940 when she went to the Savoy Ballroom to hear his band. Carter died at a Los Angeles hospital on July 12, 2003, just a month shy of his 96th birthday. He is survived by his wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, and a grandson. Nicknamed The King by fellow musicians early in his career, Carter was beloved not only for his musical genius, but also for his reserved, dignified, and modest personality.


ASCAP, (January 5, 2004); Benny Carter, (January 5, 2004); Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2003, p. B9; New York Times, July 14, 2003, p. A19; Riverwalk: Live from the Landing, (January 5, 2004); , (January 5, 2004); Rutgers University at Newark, (January 5, 2004); Village Voice, (January 5, 2004); Washington Post, July 15, 2003, p. B7.

Amanda de la Garza

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