August 8, 2012


Our friend, Glenn Dryfoos, has given us permission to share a piece he wrote about the great sax man.

It's been said that a man should not be forced to live up to his art. Benny Carter is one of the rare instances when we wonder whether the great art that a man has created can live up to him. 
- Wynton Marsalis
I. Introduction
In the fall of 1979 I heard Benny Carter play live for the first time.  He was in his early 70's then, and in my teen-age ignorance, I imagined that he must have moved into the "living legend" phase of his career, like the more-famous Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and other icons (or relics?) of the Swing Era.  I previously had heard both Hampton (fronting a big band) and Goodman (leading a small group), and each - Hampton with shouts and smiles, Goodman with cool detachment - worked their way through the tunes that their adoring and nostalgic fans had turned out to hear.  But, measured against the heights they achieved in the 1930's and '40's, their playing in the 1970's, although satisfying, did not match the virtuosity and artistry of their youth. 
Before the concert I knew little about Benny except that he was, with Johnny Hodges, one of the two great alto sax players of pre-bop jazz.   So I really wasn't prepared for the music that October night.  Benny took the stage with "special guest" Dizzy Gillespie and a terrific rhythm section and proceeded to demonstrate that he was not a museum piece, but instead, a swinging, vital and modern jazz voice.
Although his alto style was rooted in swing, his playing was absolutely unique.  Each improvised solo had the structure and logic of a composed piece.  Ideas built on riffs developed smoothly, one into the next, with the perfect placement of empty spaces, which let his statements breathe and grow.  His tone was warm, but with a dry edge to it; less florid than Hodges's, less biting than Charlie Parker's.  Unlike other swing-era players, he used little vibrato, and his attack mixed the sharp staccato of early jazz and a smooth legato that was suggestive of West Coast Cool.  Most distinctive, however, was his sense of time and phrasing, an instantly identifiable flow of eighth notes and triplets that one moment seemed to be rushing ahead of the beat and the next seemed to be falling behind it.  His music swung...not with the driving swagger of Coleman Hawkins or clockwork precision of the Count Basie band...but in a way that was subtle and engaging.     
And it wasn't only his alto playing that impressed.  At Dizzy's urging, Benny showed off his supple and lyrical trumpet style.  Moreover, his bearing and the way he interacted with those around him marked him as a special person.  It was evident that the staid university president who welcomed Benny to the stage that night - a man more at home in the company of Noble Laureates or in the Faculty Dining Room than with a bunch of jazz musicians - held him in great esteem.  And the other musicians, especially Gillespie, treated him with noticeable affection and respect.  Benny seemed like a favorite uncle; but not the old uncle whose glasses you hid and who you imitated behind his back...this was an uncle you loved and could share a good joke with, but also a man who would tell you to sit up straight and to keep your mouth closed when you chewed your food.  Dizzy summed it up best when he told the audience, "When I grow up I want to be just like Benny Carter!"
As great as his playing was that night, it was actuarially inconceivable that Benny would continue traveling around the world playing at the highest level for another twenty years.  Yet he not only outlived contemporaries and colleagues such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster by three decades or more, but between his 75th and 90th years he made some of his greatest recordings, all the while remaining an important composer and arranger, an active teacher and an ambassador for jazz.
II. History
In the last 20 years or so of his career, previews or reviews of Benny Carter concerts almost always focused on his amazing longevity in a business where the romantic prototype was the tragic, short-lived and tortured genius (think Beiderbecke, Parker, Coltrane) and where even those perceived as having had long, productive careers had, in fact, died relatively young (Hawkins, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis all lived only into their early or mid-60's).  These articles would present some of the salient facts from the long timeline of Benny's career, but could never quite do justice to the breadth and depth of his accomplishments.  To prove this point, here is a partial list: In the late 1920's, Benny, along with men like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Don Redman, began writing arrangements for jazz bands that moved the music from the collective improvisation of early jazz to the instrumentation and the balance between ensemble playing and soloists that sparked the Swing Era and pertains to this day.  He was, along with Hodges, one of the first two jazz masters of the alto sax, and those two, with Parker, remain the standard for the instrument.  Benny was a first-rate trumpet player and clarinetist, and had he played just one of those instruments, and not the alto, would have been considered an all-time great.  Although none of his own big bands in the 30's and 40's attained financial success, his arrangements provided hits for the bands of Goodman, Miller, Shaw and others.  For over 70 years dozens of his compositions and arrangements been favorites of other musicians and have been performed by instrumentalists such as Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Phil Woods and by vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Williams and Tony Bennett.  He was a great discoverer of talent; Benny recommended that Chick Webb hire Ella Fitzgerald after hearing her at an amateur night at the Apollo Theater, and his bands gave early starts to the careers of Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson and Max Roach, among others.  In the 1940's he became the first African-American composer/arranger for the Hollywood studios, and he enjoyed a long and successful run writing for movies and television.  And Benny was Civil Rights leader, playing a key role in the integration of the previously all-white and all-black musicians' unions in Los Angeles in the 1950's and successfully challenging restrictive housing covenants when he wished to purchase a home in a white neighborhood.  And that's only the FIRST half of his life.  A few more items that highlight his continuing productivity: after being acknowledged as a saxophone virtuoso for almost 60 years, he recorded perhaps his greatest solo on Lover Man in 1985 and about 10 years after that won a Grammy for his solo on Prelude to a Kiss; he is, to the best of my knowledge, the only musician to record on every technology from wax cylinder to digital tape; and, thanks to time spent in Europe in the mid-1930's, he was renowned on two continents at a time that Ruth and Gehrig were playing for the Yankees, and still world-famous and at the top of his craft when New York was winning championships with Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams.  (For more detail on Benny's life, see the two-volume Benny Carter - A Life in American Music by Morroe Berger, Ed Berger and James Patrick {Scarecrow Press}.   Gary Giddins also has a fine piece on Benny in his collection of essays, Weatherbird {Oxford}.)
Of course, by the time the jazz writer got through his list, there weren't many column inches left to describe Benny's current playing, so in the process, both history and the present were short-changed.
III. The Benny Carter Conundrum
From Armstrong, Ellington and Hawkins in the 1930's to Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis at the turn of the next century, musicians uniformly praised and revered Benny - in his obituary, Giddins wrote that no jazz musician ever was more widely-admired by his peers - they called him "King," and they lined up to join him in concerts or to play his compositions and arrangements.
Yet, despite his incredible accomplishments, when compared to artists like Duke Ellington, Stan Getz or Dave Brubeck, many serious jazz fans know little about Carter and his music, and he is almost anonymous to casual fans and to the world at large.  This, then, raises the question: Given that he was considered one of the greats in every era that jazz has existed, how has Benny and his body of work remained relatively unknown when measured against the fame and acclaim accorded to so many others?
There is no single answer, but rather, many contributing factors.  One is that Benny never had a hit record.  Although men like Ellington, Getz and Brubeck were hardly one-hit wonders and enjoyed long, productive careers, is there any doubt that their fame was greatly magnified by the success of their biggest popular hits (Take the "A" Train, Girl from Ipanema and Take Five, respectively)?  Artie Shaw was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, jazz clarinetists, but might be known today only to die-hard jazz fans if not for his recording of Begin the Beguine.  Even Louis Armstrong owes his renown today as much if not more to pop hits like Hello Dolly and It's a Wonderful World as to his true masterpieces like West End Blues and Struttin' With Some Barbeque.
Another issue is Benny's versatility.  Since no one else was so good at so many things, we just don't know how to appropriately weigh this when comparing him to musicians who were "only" (or, at least primarily) instrumentalists or composers or arrangers or bandleaders.  So, perhaps we have simply judged Benny's skills individually, with no "extra credit" for being able to do it all.  But one cannot help but be astounded that the same man who had almost 70 years of remarkable alto performances to his credit also gave us the fabulous trumpet solo on "More Than You Know," played two memorable clarinet choruses on "Dee Blues" and wrote scores of beautiful tunes and arrangements.
Carter's longevity is a third factor.  To use a baseball analogy, it is clear that 60 home runs or 25 wins in a season is an amazing performance, but the skill, perseverance and durability it takes to get to 500 home runs or 300 wins may be harder to recognize and appreciate.  And when combined with his versatility, what we really have is the musical equivalent of a ballplayer who hit 500 homeruns, won 300 games as a pitcher and then added a few pennants as a manager.
A final, and perhaps key, contributor was Benny's own nature.  He was a modest man; and "modest" does not mean insecure or lacking in confidence.  Benny was certainly confident in his skills as a musician...for one thing, how could any sax player stand toe-to-toe with the great Hawkins over the course of 35 years if he had any doubts at all about his own ability?  But Benny was modest in that his actions, demeanor and style never called attention to himself or his music.  From the early 1930's on, Carter was described in the press as "sophisticated," "urbane," "refined," and in retrospect, those words not only describe the polite, well-spoken man that he was, but also a person who seemed devoid of self-promotion (in either the good or bad sense of the term).  Whether at club dates or recording sessions after the advent of the LP, Benny generally limited his solos to one, two or maybe three choruses; he never assumed people would want to listen to him continue playing after he himself thought he had nothing more to say.  And, when put into the gladiatorial world of Jazz at the Philharmonic - where long, honking, screaming solos that whipped the crowds into a frenzy were expected - Benny never seemed comfortable.  His modesty extended to his song-writing as well.  Simply put, he must have been a terrible song plugger.  It's incredible to look through his discography and see the dozens of his tunes that were recorded only once or, at most, twice.  He was content to write something for a session, record it, and move on.  A less modest man would have pushed his songs (so many of them are wonderful) on the world.  Benny described his compositions as "his children," but although he was justifiably proud of his kids, he never bragged about them.
A quote Benny gave Gary Giddins probably sums things up best: Benny said that he was once asked about his contribution to music and had responded, "I don't know.  If I've made a contribution I'd be happy to know that, but I'll let somebody else say it.  I don't know.  And I'm not being modest, I really don't know.  Contribution to what - my livelihood?" 

Posted by at August 8, 2012 9:03 PM

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