Harlem-born jazz great Bennett Lester Carter (pictured) was a leading figure in the genre, enjoying one of the lengthiest careers in music ever. A multi-instrumentalist, Benny Carter would showcase mastery of the saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet. Spanning decades, Carter’s musical legacy began in the 1930s and didn’t officially end until the late ’90s – an impressive run that may never be matched again. Affectionately known as the “King” among his fellow jazz musicians, Carter would go on to inspire and mentor a host of players along the way.
Carter was born in 1907 as the youngest of three children. His first exposure to music happened by way of his mother giving him piano lessons. He would graduate to other instruments, mostly teaching himself. By the age of 15, Carter would become a side man in some of Harlem’s early jazz clubs.
Although he was inspired by Duke Ellington band member and trumpeter Bubby Miley, Carter would ditch the trumpet out of frustration and pick up the saxophone instead. From there, he would play alongside pianists Fats Waller and Earl Hines, as well as the legendary Duke Ellington himself.
Carter would craft his first recording in 1928 with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra, going on to lead his own band the next year. As a a master arranger and songwriter, Carter would craft many jazz standards, including the swing standard “Blue Lou” and “When Lights Are Low,” and created tunes for Duke Ellington and others.
Listen to Carter’s “Blue Lou” here:
Carter would become a standout alto sax player, finally releasing his debut album in 1935, “The Chocolate Dandies (pictured).” That same year, Carter moved to Europe to play with the Willie Lewis Orchestra and did musical arrangements for the BBC.
He returned to the States in 1938, working at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom with his latest orchestra. His arrangements also appeared on recordings for Lena Horne, Count Bassie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and more.
In 1943, he moved to Los Angeles, where he engaged in studio work and opened the door for Black composers in the film world. He would pen arrangements for Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, and Mel Torme before moving in to composing music for large film production.
Quincy Jones looked to Carter as an inspiration when he began his career in composing, and Miles Davis started his recording career as a sideman in Carter’s orchestra and considered him a mentor and close ally. But beyond inspiring and arranging for a growing list of future jazz legends, Carter would take his music around the world with tour stops in Australia and various locales in Europe as well, playing well in to his 80s and finally retiring in 1997.
Having lived a long and full life, Carter would pass from complications arising from bronchitis in July 2003 at age 95.
Carter’s long career is fodder enough for many words of praise but the fact that he was able to take his music to the global stage, offering opportunities to younger players and enhancing the sound of fellow greats, solidifies his place in the pantheon of jazz legends near the top. With jazz standards still enjoyed and re-imagined to this day, Carter’s musical legacy remains untarnished and continues to inspire.
Watch Carter perform with Count Basie here:
Happy Birthday, Benny Carter!