Despite his deep involvement in writing for films and television, in the 1950s, and shrugging off a 1956 heart attack, Benny Carter still found time to play with Jazz At The Philharmonic and to form and lead bands for residencies, short tours, and recording sessions. Notable among these recording dates were Aspects, 1961’s influential Further Definitions album, on which he was joined by Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse, and 1966’s Additions To Further Definitions, with a band that included Mundell Lowe and Teddy Edwards. This music has can be found on a Decca Records release. The musicality and musicianship Carter possessed endeared him to singers and he wrote arrangements for a wide range of jazz and jazz-influenced pop singers, among them Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughan.
The 1970’s saw Carter’s re-emergence as a concert and touring artist and he made numerous national and international tours, playing jazz clubs and concert halls, and making many albums. In 1987, he teamed up with John Lewis and the occasionally-assembled All-American Jazz Orchestra for concerts dedicated to performing works written especially for big bands. To this repertoire, Carter contributed a major long work, Central City Sketches, rehearsing, conducting and playing solo alto at its premiere. Also in 1987, Ken Mathieson commissioned Carter to compose a suite for a big band for the Glasgow Jazz Festival. In 1989, his 82nd birthday was honored by a concert at New York's Lincoln Center at which some of his songs were sung by Sylvia Syms and Ernestine Anderson. He celebrated his 85th birthday with a concert at Rutgers University, premiering two new suites written especially for the occasion: Tales Of The Rising Sun Suite and Harlem Renaissance Suite. In 1997, a special concert was held in honor of his 90th birthday at the Hollywood Bowl at which a new composition by John Clayton was played. Dedicated to Carter, the three-part suite was entitled, very appropriately, Maestro. The concert could not, though, be held on Carter’s actual birth day; instead, it was held two days earlier because on his birthday the indefatigable maestro had a gig in Norway. In May 2000, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra premiered two of Carter's new works, Time To Remember, memorializing President John F. Kennedy, and Again And Again, a ballad performed by alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton. The occasion was a concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, remembering the city’s Central Avenue jazz scene, at which Maestro was reprised.
As a soloist, Carter’s fluent playing on alto saxophone and the liquid sound he created made him kin to his near-contemporary, Johnny Hodges, and between them they effectively ruled the world on that instrument until the arrival of Charlie Parker. Although less well known, his clarinet playing was similarly rich and flowing. All these comments can be applied just as readily to his trumpet playing. Very few musicians double on reeds and brass; of those few that do, it is hard to think of any who achieve this with such apparent ease as Carter. Bill Berry recalled an appearance with Carter in Tokyo who was, as usual, playing alto that night. Someone in the audience requested that Carter play trumpet. Although he did not have his own trumpet, and as far as anyone knew had not picked one up in years, Carter borrowed Berry's cornet and played with the perfection of someone who was in daily practice. Carter’s playing skills never deserted him, as can be heard on many recordings from late in his life, among them a set at New York’s Iridium Club released by Nimbus.
Carter’s composing blended silky melodies with vibrant swing. Among his compositions are Blues In My Heart, which is one of the most recorded of his instrumentals, When Lights Are Low, also extensively recorded as an instrumental and as a vocal, with lyrics by Spencer Williams, Blue Star, Devil's Holiday, Dream Lullaby, Blue Interlude, Lonesome Nights, Doozy, which defies anyone not to swing when playing it, Symphony In Riffs, which was also the title of a 1995 video release, and he also wrote Kansas City Suite for Count Basie's band in the 1960s. As composer and arranger he ranks with Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and a handful of others as an important architect of swing era big band concepts. His writing for the saxophone section was perhaps the most instantly recognizable element of his arranging talent. The gorgeous, flowing, seemingly simple yet decidedly complex sound he created was just one of the many joys that this remarkable man brought to jazz.
Fortunately, Carter attracted the biographer he merited and in 1982 Morroe Berger, brought out his two-volume biography, Benny Carter: A Life In American Music, written in collaboration with Ed Berger and James Patrick, which fully documents the life of this amazing musician. Except, of course, in 1982, Carter still had two decades of music making ahead of him.
The official Benny Carter web site, run by Ed and Laurence Berger, should not be missed by anyone interested in the life and career of this extraordinary man. Carter died on Saturday, 12 July 2003, leaving behind an incomparable musical legacy. We shall not see his like again.
In 2011, singer Deborah Pearl released, Souvenir Of You, an album of songs for which she wrote lyrics to compositions by Benny Carter. This very interesting CD is reviewed elsewhere on this Blog. Also in 2011, Ken Mathieson teamed up with Alan Barnes and Woodville Records to re-explore Carter’s Glasgow Suite, recording the work with Mathieson’s 8-piece Classic Jazz Orchestra, along with several other Carter compositions and arrangements. In so doing, they demonstrated not only their own musical skills but also the durability of the music of Benny Carter.