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Bennett L. Carter

By Gunther Schuller

When Bennett Lester Carter died last July just four weeks shy of his 96th birthday, it did not exactly engender a day (or a week) of national mourning—certainly not comparable to in impact to the passing of Duke Ellington nearly thirty years ago, or—more recently—of Dizzy Gillespie, both members of our Academy. There’s a reason for Benny Carter’s quiet, hardly noticed passing: he was on of those remarkably talented musical artists who for a large part of his life worked behind the scene as a composer/arranger, and who never sought the limelight, who approached his work with a combination of selflessness, unpretentiousness and professional dignity, that is nowadays relatively rare in our culture and society.

That is, of course, not to say that Benny Carter wasn’t enormously admired and respected in his particular artistic corner of the world, the domain of jazz. Rarely was there such a multi-talented, deeply versatile musician as Benny Carter. In his long prodigious career he mastered not only all of the saxophone family, from soprano to bass saxophone and a sort of family patriarch, the clarinet, but also trumpet and trombone as well as piano. I use the word “mastered” here, because Benny was more than a dabbler on these instruments—the term ‘doubler’ taking on too often the meaning of dabbler. No, Carter was that rare talent whose high artistic standards inspired him to really master these many instruments and to plumb the depths of their idiomatic, expressive essence. As one of the giants among the earliest generation of musicians who turned jazz from a purely functional dance and entertainment music into an art form—his immediate peers and contemporaries in that particular pantheon would be such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins—Carter was the first to develop in the 1920s the cohesive, balanced integrated five-part saxophone ensemble, with a touch of classical elegance that was in part derived from his considerable knowledge of classical music.

Benny Carter was a first-rate jazz musician and creative improviser, as well as a writer of many fine tunes with lovely, original chord progressions. But he became an Academy member not because he was a stellar instrumentalist, but more on the basis of his work as a prolific composer and arranger in the traditional sense of that term. In that realm he achieved his first break-through when he was a mere teen-age stripling, working with and composing for such bands as Fletcher Henderson’s and Chick Webb’s in Harlem. By the end of the 1930s he had played with and arranged/composed for almost every jazz orchestra worth mentioning. However, eventually tiring after two decades of incessant, peripatetic touring—that’s what one did during the height of the big band era—Carter decided to settle down on the west coast, disappearing, as it were, into the film and television studios of Hollywood, where he labored manfully and fruitfully for the next five decades, bringing his sense of elegant artistry to films such as Stormy Weather, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and television series like M Squad.

Among the many accolades Carter earned in his 80-year career, he especially cherished receiving the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.

Benny Carter was a kind, gentle soul who, I believe, never said a harsh word about anyone. Similarly, I never heard him play or write a sour note.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 13, 2003.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters