Analysis: Why Benny Carter will be missed

By KEN FRANCKLING  |  July 22, 2003 at 3:46 PM
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, July 22 (UPI) -- Last week's death of Benny Carter marked much more than the loss of a quiet giant of a jazz alto saxophonist and brilliant musical composer.

Carter, who was 95, was the last notable from a pre-bebop generation of musical greats whose work transcended the jazz genre.

His career was marked by the steady brilliance of his work, yet he was not well known by the general public, although generations of jazz fans knew of at least some of his many contributions.

The Swing Era, pre-Swing music and more recent works that Carter produced -- great music regardless of its formative periods -- are disappearing, especially on radio, except on the few radio stations across America programming jazz these days. But such is the fate of popular music in general from the so-called Great American Songbook.

Oh, you may hear the wonderful Carter jazz ballad "When Lights are Low" if you search far and wide, and maybe even "Key Largo." But it won't be on many commercial radio stations or even the jazz channels on airline flights, which offer least common denominator programming.

So this, then, is a chance to savor Carter's longstanding contributions to American music that began when he was barely 20 in his native New York. He was leading his own band by age 21.

"This represents a great loss for the music world. Benny Carter had one of the longest and most productive life any musician could wish for. Not only did he define what being a musician is all about," said West Coast jazz saxophonist Mel Martin. "He defined the way musicians should carry themselves and maintain their dignity throughout all of the trials and tribulations life brings. I was blessed to have worked with him extensively and counted him as a true friend and mentor."

While Carter played trumpet as well as alto saxophone, for which he was best known, his lasting contributions were as a talented and meticulous composer, arranger and bandleader.

For decades, he set the standard for mainstream jazz with music he created with sinuous beauty and control. Yet, the kind of acclamation given Duke Ellington and Count Basie always eluded him.

In 1924, pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith urged Carter to switch from C-melody saxophone to alto saxophone. It was a move that brought Carter to the forefront in jazz. From the mid-1920s until 1945, he and Johnny Hodges were the genre's leading alto players, when Charlie Parker's bebop wizardry set the jazz world on fire.

Carter's distinctive alto sound was rich and lyrical, with measured, brightly shaped notes. The fullness he mined in the horn's upper register is rarely heard from other alto players.

"I ingest modern influences subliminally. Things creep in, because I listen to what's being played today. I keep abreast of what's going on today, without making a conscious effort to sound au courant," Carter said in a 1988 interview with UPI -- when he was a grand old man of jazz at age 80 and his career already stretched back some 65 years.

By the 1930s, Carter had played with Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. He had his own band from 1932-34, then went to Europe in 1935. He recorded in Paris with guitarist Django Reinhardt, formed an international big band in Holland and did arrangements for the BBC Dance Band in London. He returned to the U.S. in 1938, formed a new band and worked as a sideman with Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Lionel Hampton.

In 1942, Carter became a staff arranger for the network radio program "Hit Parade." By 1943, he moved to Hollywood, where he was a busy composer and arranger for film and TV for three decades. He also formed a new West Coast big band whose members included future jazz stars J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, Miles Davis, George Russell and Art Pepper.

His movie music included the soundtracks for "Stormy Weather" and "the Gene Krupa Story." His TV contributions included music for "M Squad," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Chrysler Theater" and "Ironside."

His many fine compositions included "When Lights Are Low," "Key Largo," "Blue Star", "Cow Cow Boogie," "Only Trust Your Heart" and the "Kansas City Suite." He wrote the latter for Count Basie in 1960.

"I'm listening more than anything else for the melody," Carter told music students in 1988. "I don't want to hear what you heard somebody play on the radio or read from the charts yesterday. I want to hear something fresh and personal."

And that's what he wrote and played. Always.

Carter's contributions to America's rich pre-1990s musical legacy never relied on hype or a bare navel to succeed. And they will outlast any and all pop tart dreams.

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