by EARL OKIN.
I once ended an article about Benny Carter, suggesting that he was the man we’d all like to be. Nothing has changed my mind. At the age of 90, he is still able to say, as he did to me, ‘I don’t have the feeling that I’ve done it all’. That’s what I want to be saying when I’m that age!
Born in 1907, Benny is the youngest and last surviving member of that incredible group of musicians who painted the landscape in the world of Jazz. (Other key members of this illustrious group would be Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins). During the period, say, 1925-1935, they took Jazz from an interesting but localized pubescent art-form and made it capable of transforming popular musical taste literally around the world. Of-course, these weren’t the only musicians responsible for this transformation, but they did represent, on their various instruments, the very best around.
Of these, perhaps Benny Carter would be the least known to the general public. I once suggested that the reason for this was that he is simply SO talented in SO many fields that the average Jazz journalist can’t take it in or perhaps refuses to believe that a man so versatile can be not just a Jack of all trades but an all-round Master. When they were giving out nicknames to Jazz musicians in the Swing era, Benny was most often called ‘The Cat With Nine Lives’ or simply ‘King Carter’; names that speak for themselves.
I’ve always believed that Benny has been and still is simply the most important alto saxophone soloist in Jazz. Another contender for this title, Johnny Hodges, certainly seemed to think so way back in the late 20s, while the famous Funky Blues recording of the early 50s, where Carter, Hodges and the unforgettable Charlie Parker trade choruses, show Benny more than capable of dealing with any of the developments resulting from Bebop and, I would suggest, with a more beautiful ‘sound’.
Then, there’s Benny’s trumpet-playing. Indeed, it was Benny’s cousin, the trumpeter Cuban Bennett who was an early inspiration. Why listen to MY opinion, however, when Dizzy Gillespie, who knew more than a little about the instrument, is on record as describing Benny as ‘A magnificent trumpet-player….always the best in his band.’
As if all this wasn’t enough, Benny Carter was one of the first and most influential big-band arrangers in Jazz, especially noted for his saxophone writing, where the effect is almost as if the complete section is playing a Benny Carter solo in harmony. No wonder contemporaries found his writing challenging!
Then again, Benny could play clarinet, piano and goodness knows what else, was just about the first to record a Jazz WALTZ, is a wonderful songwriter and…well, you get the picture….
As a musician, bandleader and as a man, the word most often used to describe Benny Carter is ‘dignified’, but not in any stuffy sense. There is always a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation in his speech and a generosity of spirit which goes far deeper than window-dressing. Which other bandleader at the height of his fame, for instance, would willingly have given up his solo spaces so that an 18-year-old alto-player in his band, in this case the teenage Art Pepper, could get a chance to develop in front of an audience?
Because of his amazing musicianship, almost classical purity of tone and his early association with a big-band based around a University, it was often assumed that Benny was highly educated. Well, he IS highly educated, but it’s 95% self-education. He was already working professionally by 1923, when he was scarcely 16, and taught himself to arrange by borrowing some band-parts from an arrangement he liked, spreading them all over the floor and working out for himself what was going on…and all this before he was 20. By the time he made his first featured records in the late 20s, the Carter musical personality was already fully-formed.
Likewise, quotations from over 60 years ago are recognizable as typical of the sort of thing he might say today. Witty, quick to praise others, reluctant to criticize, he is NOT the sort of man, however, with whom you take liberties. He grew up in the toughest of neighbourhoods in New York, known as Hell’s Kitchen, often had to carry a gun for personal protection in his early days and certainly knew how to fight if he had to.
Moreover, and more significantly, there’s a hidden core of steel in his personality. Though always willing to co-operate, he would never compromise his >high standards. When Benny Carter says ‘No’, you don’t argue. Whenever any racial slur was uttered, he was quick to reply in public with a controlled but effective riposte. All in all, one can see immediately why he was always respected and loved as a leader by virtually every musician who worked for him. Playing in Benny Carter’s band was, for years, the badge of honour; the proof, if you will, that you had ‘arrived’ as a musician.
So much, then, for the legend. Since the breaking up of his last regular big-band over 50 years ago, Benny Carter has worked as a star soloist, top session-player, arranger and leader in the recording-studio, (especially in LA where he relocated at the end of World War Two), and also providor of wonderful soundtracks for films and TV alike.
I first met him over 20 years ago, though a mutual friend, the late Renee Diamond, when he was in New York. While they reminisced in the kitchen, I decided to leave them alone and practiced one or two Jazz melodies I was writing on the piano in the living room. I could hear them chatting in the distance. Thirty minutes later, he came in and said, ‘I don’t think I know that tune you were playing’ and proceeded to play my piece note-perfect on the keyboard. This is frightening stuff!
I’ve kept in touch over the years and I’m proud to say that we’ve become friends. Benny lives in comfort up above Beverly Hills in a bungalow and drives a Rolls Royce, as befits any King! He shares the house with his third wife, a charming lady from Finland called Hilma who is NOT a real dyed-in-the-wool Jazz fan and loves him not because he is a Jazz-legend but simply because he is the man he is. Benny claims that she is solely responsible for keeping him young.
I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by me, for he doesn’t really enjoy being asked probably the same stupid questions over and over again and I set out full of anticipation from the luxurious hotel where British Airways had put me, the Hyatt on Sunset Blvd., in my little hired car, together with High Life photographer, Kim Golding. <You don’t get ANYWHERE in LA without a car!>. The best news of all was that, (following a bout of ill-health since he flew across to Europe last year to help celebrate at a big party thrown to mark his 90th birthday), he was playing at a club in LA for a few days.
He greeted us with his usual smile and seemed at least 20 years younger than he really is, dealing with all the technicalities of lights and camera-angles as if he posed for portraits every day. Then, when Kim had left with her cameras, he suggested we talk over lunch at the local tennis club where he likes to dine.
We ‘spoke of many things; fools and Kings’ as the song says. One of the recurring topics was the way that touring itself has changed over the years. Benny recalled that, back around 1930, the entire Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, in which he was working at the time, would travel in a group of cars. Said Benny, ‘The longest trip we took was about 700 miles. The cars could do up to 80-90mph, but, before Freeways, those hump-backed roads were not good to be speeding on. Naturally, we split the time driving and sleeping’. On the other hand, when he first travelled to Europe in 1935, it had been a slow leisurely journey by liner, over several days.
By complete contrast, a couple of years ago, in his late 80s, Benny undertook a massive flight direct from LA to Bangkok, stopping only once, to refuel at Seoul. He told me ‘I was allowed to stay on the ‘plane, because they knew that I was a personal guest of the King of Thailand’. Nevertheless, despite sleeping as much as he could, he was a wreck. ‘However luxurious your seat’, <‘I’ll settle for first class’, he quipped>, ‘There’s no substitute for a bed’.
Despite live performance, most of Benny’s recent musical activity has been in the recording studio. Twenty years ago, when the ‘official’ Benny Carter biography was produced by Morroe and Ed Berger, there was an attached ‘definitive’ discography. Benny has made a mockery of this ‘complete’ listing, however. ‘Since 1987, I’ve been with the Music Masters label’, Benny reminded me, and he’s recorded more music since then than he had for several decades >before that signing.
All sorts of ambitions have been fulfilled. There’s a complete suite arranged for an orchestra of almost Symphonic proportions, string section and all; some live sessions with other greats like Phil Woods and, so far, two volumes of a Benny Carter Songbook series with tracks sung by a variety of great singers from Peggy Lee to Jon Hendricks; from Diana Krall to Joe Williams. There are so many back-catalogue compositions left unrecorded, for >instance, his 1940s hit, Cow-Cow Boogie, (‘I never recorded that, but I wrote it’). And on it goes. ‘I have a lot of old stuff that’s never been recorded, and I’m continuously writing new stuff. At the moment, I’m writing some things for a big-band. I just can’t catch up with myself’.
I’m sure that it’s this continual mental stimulation, this thinking about tomorrow’s performance rather than dwelling in the past, that keeps Benny young, for he’s FAR too nice to have one of those ‘pictures in the attic’. He claims never to exercise too much, (as he said, ‘Just simple walking’) and nor does he adhere to any particular diet-regime. With a chuckle, he assured me, ‘I eat anything that’s put before me. Anything they put on the plate’.
Speaking of which, I was Benny’s guest at Catalina’s, a lovely little Jazz Club-Restaurant in LA a couple of nights later, where he performed two sets of standards and originals to an intimate and knowledgeable audience of aficianados. Demonstrating how years of bandleading have taught the skill of entertaining, humorous between-number banter, he was also clearly enjoying the solos of the other members of his quintet.
During one particularly mind-boggling solo by the bass-player, John Leitham, Benny remarked into the mike ‘I want you to understand that what he’s doing is actually impossible. It’s just that he doesn’t know it’. The quintet, including drummer Ralph Penland and trombonist Ira Nepus alongside Benny’s alto-sax, featured in particular a Benny Carter protege; a truly superb pianist called Chris Neville. Benny discovered him in Boston and in a sort of echo of the time during the 30s when he drove from New York to Chicago just to obtain the services of a very young Teddy Wilson, so Benny had Chris flown out from his native Boston just to have him on the stand with him in LA for 5 days.
Some time ago, Benny wrote a song for his wife entitled ‘When Hilma Smiles’. What was noticeable during this evening was the number of times that HE smiled at what the OTHERS in his group were playing. Yes, he may look back with admiration to greats like Teddy Wilson, Sid Catlett or whoever, but his pleasure at TODAY’S group is clearly much more than window-dressing for the audience. And when BENNY CARTER smiles at you, I’m sure you play better!
Yes, when Benny smiles, a Jazz-musician’s world is perfect. I expected respect from these young musicians for a legend like Benny Carter. What I saw that night, however, was something far more rare. There was a sort of love-affair between the group and Benny out there <trombonist Ira Nepus looked particularly thrilled to be on the same stage as Benny>, which transmitted to the audience quite tangibly. Nobody was excluded. Benny can walk down the street without being bothered by celebrity-watchers, but here in his own domain, he remains King, chatting to fans, signing autographs that will be cherished forever and just being himself.
Eubie Blake, another great musician when HE reached 90 was asked how it was >that he’d always smoked and drunk and yet here he was, hale and hearty, at 90. >The reply was classic. ‘Yes! If I’d have known how old I was going to get, I >would have taken more care of myself!’. I put this to Benny, but he took >another view. ‘No, if *I* had known how old I was going to get, I would have >had more fun!’. And I received one of those fabulous Benny Carter smiles.
Yes, I was right the first time. Benny Carter is the man we’d all like to be!