Benny Carter at his 90th Birthday Celebration.
Life Is Carter's
Main Instrument Now
by Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2002
Benny Carter will be 95 on Thursday.
A veteran of virtually every part of the great 20th century expansion
of jazz, an important influence upon the music as an instrumentalist,
a composer and an arranger, he is now one of the patriarchs of the
art, a direct conduit into its checkered history.
Carter has lived for the last 25 years with his wife, Hilma, in
a sunny, airy home situated near the top of the Hollywood Hills.
His windowed study is filled with memorabilia -- photos of Carter
throughout his seven-decade career, awards of every size and manner,
shelves overflowing with books, LPs and CDs. Interestingly and,
since Carter no longer plays either of his primary instruments --
saxophone or trumpet -- somewhat poignantly, there is the presence,
almost unnoticeable under a table, of a musical instrument stand,
intended to hold both or either of his two horns, but with no instrument
A bit bent over, using a cane for stability, Carter still possesses
a wry wit and an extraordinary memory for names, places and faces.
He also proudly describes the reaction of a Department of Motor
Vehicles examiner recently when his license came up for renewal.
"I took the eye test and passed it on the spot," he says.
"Then, when he asked me to sign something, I pulled out my
reading glasses. He looked at me and said, 'Wait, you wear glasses?'
And I said, 'Sure, but just for reading.'"
Carter's last public appearance as a player took place at Catalina
Bar & Grill in March 1998. Seated in the audience on opening
night to review his performance, I was amazed at the quality of
his playing. There was, first of all, his sheer ability to execute
the mechanical aspects of playing the alto saxophone, which require
a complex combination of lip, teeth and mouth control, synchronized
with precise finger movements, driven by a constant flow of breath.
Add to that a roving melodic imagination, underscored by a sophisticated
harmonic ear. Ninety years young at the time, Carter still delivered
the same coolly expressive tone and subtle sense of swing that have
always been distinctive elements in his playing.
Doubling on saxophone and trumpet is not a common phenomenon, largely
because the embouchure technique -- the manner in which the mouth
is positioned to drive air into the instrument -- is so different
for each. And Carter is one of the very rare artists who has managed
to perform credibly and creatively on both.
He humorously blames the late trumpeter Doc Cheatham -- a lifetime
friend and musical associate -- for having urged him to stretch
out on the instrument in the early '30s.
"He kept telling me to just step out front and do it,"
he recalls. "And, you know, it was my first love. So finally
I did. He even gave me a mouthpiece, and it turned out to be the
only trumpet mouthpiece I ever used."
Carter is equally generous with praise in other areas, as when he
describes his role in helping to bring sophisticated jazz sounds
to Europe in the '30s.
"Leonard Feather [former Los Angeles Times jazz critic] had
a lot to do with that," says Carter. "He was the one who
arranged for me to come to London to work for the BBC, and we remained
friends until Leonard passed away in 1994."
Characteristically, Carter also tends to minimize the quality of
his own efforts by referring to the accomplishments of others, even
though he has to stretch to come up with credible comparisons.
Speaking of doubling on more than one instrument, he asks, "Have
you heard James Morrison?" mentioning the remarkable Australian
musician who moves freely from saxophone to trumpet to trombone.
"Now there's a guy who can really double. And you know, Doc
Cheatham could play saxophone too. A lot of people don't know about
that. There's also someone down at the University of Miami who made
a big-band recording in which he played all the parts, except for
None of the above, however, has performed at Carter's world-class
level of musical invention. A strong and imaginative trumpeter,
he was even more effective as an alto saxophonist, carving out his
own style at a time when his contemporary, Johnny Hodges, was rapidly
becoming a primary influence in the jazz world.
"Hodges was just a bit older than I was [in fact, only a few
weeks]," says Carter, "but his playing never had any particular
effect upon me. I listened a lot more closely to Frankie Trumbauer."
The reference sounds on target, given Trumbauer's focused, centered
tone on the C-melody saxophone -- similar in timbre to Carter's
alto saxophone style. And Carter recalls, with a chuckle, an incident
in which he and tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips warmed up for a
concert by romping in unison through Trumbauer's classic solo on
"Singin' the Blues."
A Man Who 'Just Played'.
When queried about a subject beyond his immediate factual knowledge,
Carter, who is seemingly without guile, simply responds with "I
really don't have an answer for that." Occasionally, he ponders
for a moment before replying, clearly concerned with precisely expressing
Referring back to the area of influences upon his instrumental work,
for example, he adds, "In all honesty, I think I just played
what I felt was right for me. And I think I would have done the
same thing, even if I'd been born later, when Charlie Parker was
influencing everybody. The truth is, I never gave it much thought.
I just played what I had to play."
He is similarly modest about the long list of accomplishments that
followed his move to Los Angeles in the '40s. In 1952 and 1953,
he played an important role in the amalgamation of the black Musicians
Union Local 767 into the then all-white Local 47 -- a pioneering
event in the long process of desegregating American Federation of
Musicians locals around the country.
As a composer and arranger, he provided the music for dozens of
television shows (including "M Squad") and feature films
("Stormy Weather," "A Man Called Adam," etc.),
and orchestrated for singers ranging from Billie Holiday and Ella
Fitzgerald to Lou Rawls and Ray Charles, while continuing to tour,
record and concertize with various groups of his own.
No wonder the walls of his study are so crowded with testimonial
plaques to his achievements.
Carter, sitting quietly, smilingly insists that he is "really
not a good interview." But that's true only if one is seeking
the sort of sensationalism that has often surrounded the jazz world
rather than the soft-spoken insights that he has to offer. Why,
for example, did Ken Burns, despite having interviewed him extensively,
find so little of Carter's accumulated knowledge worthy of inclusion
in his massive jazz documentary?
"There's a lot that's valuable in what he did," Carter
says in typically courteous fashion. "But I don't understand
why there's such a need to emphasize all the darker aspects of jazz.
It was the same with that Clint Eastwood film, 'Bird.' I didn't
know Charlie Parker well, but I spent some time with him, and he
was articulate and well spoken with a lot of curiosity about music
and the world. But the only way he seems to be depicted is as a
junkie. And that's not the full picture."
He frowns, shakes his head and recalls participating in a European
concert in the '80s, when trumpeter Chet Baker threw his horn to
the ground in the middle of a set.
"I suppose it had something to do with not being able to express
what he wanted to on his horn," says Carter. "Or maybe
it was just a drug episode. Either way, it was so very sad to see
such a marvelous talent in that sort of emotional and physical condition.
But I don't think we should concentrate on that. I think we should
concentrate upon all the players who lead fairly normal lives and
do the best they can to play their music."
And what about Carter himself, one wonders. Will he ever again entertain
his numerous fans with a new instrumental excursion, on either of
his two instruments?
Carter finally loses his soft-spoken demeanor for a few beats. Sitting
up, eyes flashing, banging his cane on the floor, he raises his
voice a level and pointedly concludes, "Oh no. Not a chance.
I'm retired!" __________