Remembering benny carter
by arnold jay smith
The most beautiful thing I ever heard about a musician dealt with the late Benny Carter. He was at the bedside of the dean of jazz journalists, Leonard Feather. Each day as Leonard lay in a coma Benny played his alto sax for his friend. I can’t think of a more moving testimony to the compassion of this legendary musician, whom I eventually came to call friend.
Benny Carter, Photo by Herb Snitzer
Benny played anything he laid his hands on, from piano to trumpet to alto sax. He also vocalized when so moved. He led bands of his own and ghosted others. He composed for the movies, sometimes with on-screen credit, and other times just for credits. Quincy Jones gives him all the credit for his own movie career. Benny was among the first African-Americans to write for Hollywood. And he was vocal about it, bringing others such as Q into the fold.
Naturally my first intro to him was via vinyl. To a neophyte jazzer it seemed his name was everywhere: playing on an album by the Chocolate Dandies; arranging and conducting the Basie Band; on Jazz At The Philharmonic sessions both formal and otherwise; the “Funky Blues” sessions with fellow saxophonists, altoists Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges, tenors Ben Webster and Flip Phillips --quite a reed section that; making those house party-like sessions with Dizzy Gillespie; the recordings for Norman Granz's various labels Clef, Verve and Pablo; Montreux Jazz Festival all star jams.
Two particular favorite recordings recommended for fans: Further Definitions (Impulse!), which redefined section writing by showing that Benny never aged worth a damn. The front line boasts Benny and Phil Woods, altos, and Charlie Rouse and Coleman Hawkins, tenors. Jazz Giant (Contemporary/OJC) is a multifarious affair with Webster, Frank Rosolino, trombone, Leroy Vinnegar, bass, Barney Kessel, guitar, Andre Previn or Jimmy Rowles, piano, and Shelly Manne, drums. Benny blows alto and trumpet. I still use both CDs as examples in my jazz history classes.
But there was another side to Benny Carter, jazz giant. In addition to being a perfectionist not only about the music he wrote, who performed it and how, and what we called it, he was rather particular about who wrote about him and what we said.
I first became associated with Benny Carter in the late ‘70s via Elliot Horne, then handling publicity for RCA Records. Elliot virtually took me by the hand to Princeton University, where Benny was holding down a chair. In that august semicircle were Benny’s late biographer Morroe Berger and his teenage son Ed, now one of the people who makes the Rutgers Jazz Institute function. (An ongoing friendship has endured with him as well.)
Benny seemed to like the questions I asked. That informal relationship led to an interview for the antecedent of JazzTimes, Radio Free Jazz, headed by Washington, D.C. record store owner Ira Sabin. Benny and I met in his hotel room during a New York gig at Michael’s Pub, a noisome room remembered mostly for Woody Allen’s Monday night gigs. It was at Michael’s that our friendship was cemented.
The owner of the room fashioned himself a jet-setter who refused to silence his audiences and never dimmed the lights. At one point it seemed everyone in the front seats was noisily inattentive. So this neophyte loudmouth reporter stood up and shouted for them to “please listen to this man; he is trying to tell you something.” Gil Weist, the owner, noted neither for his tolerance nor his love for jazz musicians, was on his way to my banquet with fists clenched, jaws set and smoke coming out of his ears. Then two things happened: Benny said “thank you” from the stage, and John Hammond who had been sitting directly in front of us (I was Hammond’s guest) stood up and begin an ad hoc in-your-face lecture on the greatness of Benny Carter. Weist turned on his heels without missing a beat, and the show continued amid heightened interest in the artist.
Years went by. Benny and I exchanged telephone calls. There was a party for him at another defunct club, Carlos I, where a documentary on his life was being filmed, and our friendship blossomed. Some time later, when Gary Giddins and John Lewis formed the American Jazz Orchestra, a jazz repertory band, I was lucky enough to be asked to publicize their first event, a concert of Benny Carter’s music. This freshman journalist had become, for 15 minutes at least, a facet of Benny Carter’s history.
Birthday greetings phone calls became almost expected. The scene shifts now to the '90's -- by the calendar and also almost by Benny's age. I was working for jazz publicist-cum-author Peter Levinson. One of our accounts was a CD collection of Benny Carter compositions called Central City Sketches (Music Masters). Needless to say I began shouting the praises of that CD, as by this time Benny had become a household name in and out of jazz. I had a friend who was an editor and a jazz fan at The Wall Street Journal. Nat Hentoff was their regular jazz columnist, but I wanted a different approach with a higher profile. The Wall Street Journal does not often place jazz pieces on its front page. I asked for it, and got it!
We set up the live-by-phone interview with a crew at Benny’s California digs, feeding to New York. The reporter and I had gone over the fact that Benny does not like anyone interviewing him who has not done their homework on Benny Carter and his contributions. The reporter complied and right out of the box the Benny was asked about Central City Sketches and how he writes suites. Benny quietly said that he doesn’t write suites. “Fine,” the reporter goes on. “Can you tell me about your extended compositions?” Now Benny is somewhat agitated and replied again in the negative. End of interview. A publicist’s worst nightmare. I was never again able to get a Journal front page. The reporter and I barely spoke after that. Seems they went to some expense to get the placement. Benny and I joked about that many times. To me, however, it remains one of those moments I would love to have back, shouting, “do over!”
Years. Birthdays. Then Ken Burns Jazz which I scrutinized microscope-like, as I knew I was going to be asked to comment on his film. I am not a happy camper. Among the many flaps, there are only two mentions of Benny Carter, bookending the Swing Era.
Flash ahead and Peter Miller, one of the producers of “Jazz,” became a guest in my Jazz Insights series at the New School. Amid a heated discussion among my students came the query: "Why so little Benny Carter?" Miller said almost embarrassedly, “Some people interview better [for documentary television] than others.” I found out later that Benny gave mono-sentence answers to questions put to him by someone whom he perceived hadn’t done his homework. Déjà vu WSJ?
Benny at 90. He swore he wouldn’t work on that day. I called his home. Message said he’s in Europe, actually Scandinavia. Seems someone had an assignment to get hold of Benny Carter and researched it well enough to pique his interest.