Bennett Lester Carter was an American jazz alto saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader. He was a major figure in jazz from the 1930s to the 1990s, and was recognized as such by other jazz musicians who called him King. In 1958, he performed with Billie Holiday at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival.
The National Endowment for the Arts honored Benny Carter with its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Jazz Masters Award for 1986. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, winner of the Grammy Award in 1994 for his solo “Prelude to a Kiss”, and also the same year, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2000 awarded the National Endowment for the Arts, National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton.
Born in New York in 1907, the youngest of three children and the only boy, received his first music lessons on piano from his mother. Largely self-taught, by age fifteen, Carter was already sitting in at Harlem night spots. From 1924 to 1928, Carter gained valuable professional experience as a sideman in some of New York’s top bands. As a youth, Carter lived in Harlem around the corner from Bubber Miley who was Duke Ellington’s star trumpeter, Carter was inspired by Miley and bought a trumpet, but when he found he couldn’t play like Miley he traded the trumpet in for a saxophone. For the next two years he played with such jazz greats as cornetist Rex Stewart, clarinetist-soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, pianists Earl Hines, Willie “The Lion” Smith, pianist Fats Waller, pianist James P. Johnson, pianist Duke Ellington and their various groups.
He first recorded in 1928 with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra, also arranging the titles recorded, and formed his first big band the following year. He played with Fletcher Henderson in 1930 and 1931, becoming his chief arranger in this time, then briefly led the Detroit-based McKinney’s Cotton Pickers before returning to New York in 1932 to lead his own band,including such swing stars as Leon “Chu” Berry, Teddy Wilson, Sid Catlett, and Dicky Wells. They were sophisticated and very complex arrangements, and a number of them became swing standards which were performed by other bands. He also arranged for Duke Ellington during these years. Carter was most noted for his superb arrangements. Among the most significant are “Keep a Song in Your Soul”, written for Fletcher Henderson in 1930, and “Lonesome Nights” and “Symphony in Riffs” from 1933, both of which show Carter’s fluid writing for saxophones. By the early 1930s he and Johnny Hodges were considered the leading alto players of the day. Carter also quickly became a leading trumpet soloist, having rediscovered the instrument. He recorded extensively on trumpet in the 1930s. Carter’s name first appeared on records with a 1932 Crown label release of “Tell All Your Day Dreams to Me” credited to Bennie Carter and his Harlemites. Carter’s short-lived Orchestra played the Harlem Club in New York but only recorded a handful of brilliant records for Columbia, OKeh and Vocalion. The OKeh sides were issued under the name Chocolate Dandies.