Benny Carter was born in New York on August 8, 1907—which makes this
week his centennial. It's also the perfect time to reflect on how great this guy was.
Given Carter's creative longevity, I always assumed he was going to live forever. Among the giants of jazz, Carter was probably the most gifted (and that's saying something). He made the complex art seem impossibly easy, which impressed listeners and often frustrated peers. Benny died at age 95 in 2003. Fortunately, he left behind an ocean liner's worth of music.
Most significant jazz artists produced about 5 to 10 years of creative genius—20 years at best. Carter had nearly 80 years of sheer brilliance, starting in the late 1920s and lasting through to the final years of his life. All jazz musicians were in awe of Carter. You had no choice. Which is why jazz insiders called him "King Carter."
Today, Carter is not as well known as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Miles Davis—probably because was less interested in reinventing the art form and more focused on perfecting all that he already knew.
Carter is a jazz giant because he could do it all. He was a virtuoso. Throughout his career, Carter was a top band arranger, band leader, composer, songwriter, lyricist, trumpet player, clarinetist, piano player, trombonist and alto saxophonist. Mind you, he didn't just dabble. He was an acknowledged master of everything he touched.
So where does Carter stand in the jazz chain of command? Let's put it
this way: If you pull Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington off the list,
Carter would probably be there at the top. And no one who knows this music well would give you a hard time if you said so. Not even those who play it.
As the sound of jazz changed dramatically in the late 1930s, the-mid 1940s, the early 1950s and again in the early 1960s,
Carter's sound was consistent and unmistakable. Carter had this ability to play hot and sweet simultaneously—a sound influenced primarily by Frankie Trumbauer, Bix
Biderbeck's recording sidekick and one of the leading saxophonists of the 1920s and 30s.
To me, Carter's alto sax always sounds like someone dressed up in tails, slightly tipsy, sneaking gracefully back into an apartment after hours on the town. His solos peck at notes up and down a song's melody before sliding seamless along a string of impossible improvisation. His attack was almost trumpet-like but never too staccato or saccharin.
Carter is essential because the entire history of jazz—its movements, its styles, its tones, its cockiness—are captured in his instrument. You can hear the entire span in his alto solos.
Carter is not a household name, like Ellington, Count Basie or Benny Goodman. In a sense, it's probably because he was too great, if that's possible. There was simply too much great music in Carter, too many extraordinary skills and too many amazing talents for any audience to absorb. He was bestowed with a lion's share of musical gifts that in all fairness probably should have been divided among 10 other artists. Instead, they wound up with him.
Carter was always a band leader. He had a strong, unflinching personality essential for holding the respect of slippery club owners, grubby mobsters, drunks, racists and distracted sidemen. But it wasn't just Carter's talents that held your attention. Carter was physically tough, and he used that skill perfectly, too. As Miles Davis told Quincy Troupe in his autobiography, "Benny Carter would drop anyone he thought was disrespecting him in a minute."
If you're still unsure what all the fuss is about regarding Benny Carter, consider this: It took three authors and 1,360 pages to capture the significance of Carter and his impact on jazz in a two-volume biography that came out in 1982 and today remains the definitive work (with online updates since then, of course).
I will write on Carter again soon. There's so much to say about him. But rather than go on and on, I think you'll come to your own conclusions once you've had a chance to listen to a few choice Carter recordings.
Wax tracks: Carter's discography is massive. I could list 50 or more of my favorites on CDs and out-of-print LPs.
Instead, I want to share with you just six tracks that I think will give you a sampling of his touch and taste.
First and foremost is, Further Definitions (Impulse, 1961). You should own the entire CD (which at iTunes also includes the 1966 album Additions to Further Definitions). It's a jazz essential.
But if you want a taste first, download Blue Star at iTunes for 99 cents. Sit down, close the door and listen to the Blue Star five or six times. Dig the arrangement—from its clarion call to its build and crest. And dig that reedy tag at the end. That's the sound of Benny Carter in a nutshell—his playing, his arrangement and the giants who played with him on that date. Hot and sweet and on the money.
To hear Benny's superb trumpet playing in the 30s, download Dinah at iTunes. It can be found on Coleman Hawkins' Centennial collection (Hawk was the leader on that 1939 date).
The next two aren't milestones but they are personal favorites: Key Largo (download at iTunes from New Jazz Sounds: The Benny Carter Urbane Sessions) and Gone With the Wind (on Cosmopolite: The Oscar Peterson Verve Sessions). You'll find that Carter's notes are exactly the ones your ear wanted to hear.
And finally, a track that unfortunately isn't available at iTunes but is a joy: The One I Love on singer Jo Stafford's CD, Big Band Sound. Benny wrote the chart, and it's sensational, as is Jo.
And if you find you adore Key Largo and want to hear the lyrics Carter wrote, listen to sultry Carmen Bradford sing them on Benny Carter Songbook. Carter's on the date as well—and at his best.
For more about Carter, click onto the Benny Carter site. The link is in the "Jazz Sites" column on the right.
Happy birthday, Benny!