Benny Carter's long life started out inauspiciously. Born on 8 August 1907, in a neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, known as San Juan Hill, almost from birth Bennett Lester Carter was faced with tough choices. In those days, San Juan Hill was home to many who made careers in crime; it was also a district where young men could, if they chose, make music. Benny Carter was one of several who chose to take a talent for music into the world of jazz. Among his cousins were Theodore ‘Cuban’ Bennett, a widely respected (although unrecorded) trumpeter, and Chicago-born clarinetist Darnell Howard. A near-neighbor was another trumpeter, James ‘Bubber’ Miley, who gained fame with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Other neighbors were saxophonists Rudy Powell and Russell Procope and trumpeter Bobby Stark. When Carter was aged 13, he acquired a trumpet from a pawnshop, but unable to master the instrument in the couple of days he allowed for the endeavor, he went back and exchanged the trumpet for a C-Melody saxophone. This time he achieved quicker command and with the assistance of tuition from Harold Proctor and Lt. Eugene Mickell Sr., within two years he was sufficiently proficient to be made welcome when he sat in with bands in Harlem, which is where he moved with his family in 1923. With trumpeter June Clark's band, he made the switch to alto saxophone, and he then played with various bands, including those led by Billy Fowler, Lois Deppe, Earl Hines (where he played baritone saxophone), Horace Henderson, James P. Johnson, with Duke Ellington as a substitute, Fletcher Henderson, then joined Charlie Johnson's band at Smalls Paradise. He made his recording debut with Johnson, in 1928, and it is pertinent that on the date the band played two of Carter's arrangements.
A year later, Carter was leading his own band. He had rejoined Horace Henderson’s band in 1928, and when the leader quit and despite Carter’s youth the musicians chose him as leader. The following decade saw him alternating between leading a band and working as sideman and arranger the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb, and he was musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Although often overlooked, during the 1930s, Carter’s band was very highly regarded among musicians who considered it to be an unparalleled academy of musical learning. These ‘students’ in the early 1930s included pianist Teddy Wilson, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, trombonists Dicky Wells and J. C. Higginbotham and drummer Sid Catlett. Among the bands for which he wrote charts were Chick Webb (his arrangement of Liza is especially notable), Teddy Hill, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. Carter had meanwhile mastered the trumpet and his instrumental arsenal included alto, C-Melody, tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet, trombone and piano.
Carter traveled to Europe in 1935, joining Willie Lewis in Paris and then spent the next three years over there, playing also in Denmark and the Netherlands. In this same period, he commuted frequently to London where he worked as an arranger for the BBC dance orchestra led by Henry Hall. During these years, he made a number of very good recordings with multi-national bands that included musicians such as Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt.
In 1938, he returned to the USA, a country now in the grip of swing fever, and formed another band with which he held a two-year residency at the Savoy Ballroom. Inevitable perhaps, but the musicality of Carter’s band, allied as it was to the unassuming dignity of his personal bearing, proved detrimental to popularity. During the big band era he had only one hit, Cow-Cow Boogie, a novelty trifle sung by Ella Mae Morse. His small group work during this period included spells with the Chocolate Dandies and the Varsity Seven. Much of Carter’s music from the 1930s through into the 1950s can be heard on a release by Proper Records. Popular acclaim aside, Carter was about to launch himself into a distinguished career in the motion picture industry.
From early in the 1940s, Carter worked in Los Angeles as an arranger, composer and orchestrator in film studios, undertaking and very effectively completing tasks for which he was often not credited. Hollywood was not yet comfortable with granting on screen credit to black musicians, however accomplished they might be. By the late 1940s, Carter’s film studio work consumed most of his time and energies, and as the next two and more decades passed he also worked extensively in television. His film work, off-screen and on, began with Stormy Weather in 1943 and continued through Edge Of Doom (1950), 1951’s An American In Paris, A View From Pompey’s Head (1955),The Sun Also Rises (1957), Too Late Blues, Town Without Pity (both 1961), State Fair (1962), A Man Called Adam (1966), Buck And The Preacher (1972), and 1975’s TVM, Louis Armstrong-Chicago Style among a very long list. On television, he worked on several popular series, including scoring many episodes of M Squad, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Banyon, and Name Of The Game.