"The problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he."
Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie are names that roll off the tongue when it comes to naming famous jazz musicians. These were names that were known to me even before I started this blog and the careers of whom I have happily learned a lot more about. There is one name missing however. A name that would, perhaps, only roll off the tongue of jazz afficianados. A man whose career spanned over SEVEN decades, from the end of the 1920’s right through to the end of the 20th century. A man responsible for bringing swing jazz to the forefront in the mid 30’s. A man who was playing bebop before the term was even invented. A man who kick-started the careers of JJ Johnson, Max Roach and the aforementioned legend Miles Davis. Benny Carter is surely someone who deserves our attention and awareness.
A native New Yorker, Carter was heavily influenced by the trumpet sounds of Bubber Miley and the C-Melody sax of Frank Trumbauer. At a very early age he was well aquainted with the hottest Harlem night spots and could claim to have jammed with Sidney Bechet, Earl Hines, and James P Johnson, to name a few. By the early 30’s he was a well-known arranger and the leader of his own orchestra. As well as being a proficient trumpet player, he was one of the most prominent alto saxophonist of the time. Although he was never to have the same prominence as Ellington’s or Basie’s orchestras, the music he produced with an all-star crew in 1933 remains one of the high water marks of pre-swing jazz recordings. Check out Bugle Call Rag. Recorded with English band leader Spike Hughes in New York that year, this is a song years ahead of its time. Starting off with a very up-tempo riff arrangement involving all the musicians, the song evolves with each of the musicians letting loose with fantastic solos from Coleman Hawkins and trombonist Dickie Wells.
The ravages of the Great Depression however led to the breakup of his orchestra and led Carter to leave for Europe where he stayed for the next three years. His time was not misspent however. He became involved with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot club de France making some seminal recordings in Paris in early 1937. I will undoubtedly write about these in more detail at a future date, but for now have a listen to “Honeysuckle Rose”. This is a fantastic recording with Carter and an inspired Coleman Hawkins laying down the blueprint for the next twenty years of jazz.
After Europe he returned to the States, settling in California for the rest of his career. Honeysuckle Rose and many other famous recordings were to be revisited in 1961 with the album, Further Definitions, widely regarded as one of the finest albums in jazz history.
To finish up, here is the man himself playing at a Tokyo jazz club in 1997. A mere 90 years old in the video, he still demonstrates that he has the chops to keep up with some excellent younger musicians. A fantastic piece of improvising around the old tune, Honeysuckle Rose.