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Benny Carter August 8, 1907 - July 12, 2003
photo by Ed Berger

New York Times Obituary
July 14, 2003
by John S. Wilson
July 14, 2003
by Jon Thurber
Yahoo Listing of other Obituaries
Smithsonian Benny Carter Link
Rutgers University Benny Carter Virtual Exhibit
More Links
Photos of the LA Benny Carter Tribute

Benny Carter died peacefully July 12 in a Los Angeles hospital after a brief illness. Although physically weak, he remained completely lucid and enjoyed speaking with many of his friends worldwide over the past few weeks. The funeral service will be private but we will post information concerning upcoming memorials. The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Morroe Berger - Benny Carter Jazz Research Fund, Institute of Jazz Studies, Dana Library, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ 07102 - from Ed Berger at

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, 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. I will miss him greatly but feel that he is still with us due to his giant contributions to music and humanity.- MM

 Los Angeles Times
Friday, August 8, 1997

 Veterans Pay Tribute To
Benny Carter

 Mel Martin, Antonio Hart, Jimmy Heath

 Photo By Catey Martin

Special to The Times


t was a great night for a party: one of the hottest evenings of the year to celebrate the 90th birthday of one of the coolest musicians in jazz--saxophonist-composer-bandleader Benny Carter.

And, although the sizzling weather held the Hollywood Bowl crowd Wednesday night to less than overflow proportions, the music was first-rate, providing a sterling tribute to the legendary jazz veteran.

Carter has long been one of the most respected artists in the music's history. His own chronology, in fact, covers a good portion of that history. His recording debut took place in 1927, at a time when he was proficient on both trumpet and alto saxophone. By the early '30s, he was generally considered--with Johnny Hodges--to be one of the primary influences on alto saxophone, and was, as well, a highly regarded, and much admired arranger-composer. And his beat has continued up to the present, with Carter extremely active as player and composer-arranger through all the changing styles of the '50, '60, '70s and into the present.

It was appropriate that the action at the Carter tribute centered, for the most part, around the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Although Carter has functioned in virtually every area of the music business--from songwriting to arranging to film scoring to small-ensemble jazz--some of his most attractive and best-known work was done for big-band instrumentation.

The Clayton-Hamilton aggregation's opening set, delivered after extended introductory remarks by master of ceremonies Quincy Jones, was solid, straight-ahead big band jazz. Clayton's arranging, like Carter's, understands the sonorities of the different sections of the big jazz band, and uses them at the service of a solid, driving sense of swing.

It also was appropriate that the program included a healthy sampling of saxophone music--including Carter's own "Further Definitions" and solos from a covey of players that included Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Rickey Woodard, Herb Geller and Mel Martin (with highlight solo performances by Woods and Buddy Collette).

The concert's high point was the world premiere of "Maestro--The Benny Carter Suite," written by Clayton to a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The three-part work managed to resonate and echo the kind of elegant musical sensitivity characteristic of Carter's music without mimicking or imitating it. For Clayton, the work represents yet another addition to a growingly impressive body of musical writing.

Among the other highlights, Diana Krall sang a new ballad, "Benny," with music by Ray Brown and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. There was an attractive interfacing between guitarist Kenny Burrell and trumpeter Nicholas Payton (who supplied a valuable youthful focus in a program that sometimes seemed a bit too oriented toward veteran players), and a couple of all-star jams.

Carter's appearance at the close of the evening to play a few numbers was the perfect epilogue. Still pursuing his muse, Carter's past, present and future are stunning testimonies to the survival of the creative spirit.


©Copyright Los Angeles Times

Benny Carter.

"I've been to a lot of birthday parties and some of them were mine."

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 in sight.

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 the drums."

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 his thoughts.

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!" __________

©Copyright Los Angeles Times
Introduction to a Versatile Musician

Benny Carter recorded for such a lengthy period in so many different settings that one could make a dozen, entirely different lists of his finest work.

That said, here's a grouping that offers a brief introduction to the remarkable range of his talents.
* Six CDs on the Melodie Jazz Classic label (available
from provide a comprehensive overview of Carter's early career. The individual discs are titled "1929-1933," "1933-1936," "1936," "1937-1939," "1939-1940" and "1940-1941," and cover everything from his work with the Chocolate Dandies to his own big band.
* "Cosmopolite: The Oscar Peterson Sessions" (Verve, 1952-54). Carter swings with Peterson's marvelous early quartets, which featured bassist Ray Brown and Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis on guitar.
* "Benny Carter New Jazz Sounds: The Urbane Sessions" (Verve, 1952). A double CD from the '50s, featuring Carter performing with strings and in sessions with Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.
* "Further Definitions" (GRP/Impulse!, 1961). A CD that includes the original LP release as well as a follow-up album, "Additions to Further Definitions" from 1966. Carter's arrangements for saxophone quartet--revisiting a similar session he did in 1937--are played by, among others, Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods, Charlie Rouse and Carter.
* "Benny Carter Songbook" (volumes 1 and 2, Music Masters, 1995). Carter's songs sung by, among others, Joe Williams, Diana Krall, Jon Hendricks, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn and Carter.
===== Peter MacHare A Duke Ellington Panorama

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