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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

September 1991

Better With Age


At eighty-four, Benny Carter is at the height of his musical powers.

by Francis Davis


Jazz is enduring what appears to be a mid-life crisis. As in people, the telltale symptom is a drooling infatuation with youth. It all began with the success of Wynton Marsalis, who was just twenty when he released his first album, in 1982. Overlooking the fact that musicians as talented as Marsalis are rare at any age, the major record labels have been signing untested young instrumentalists in the hope that lightning will strike twice. Not surprisingly, given the promotional effort of which these labels are capable, those young musicians are virtually the only jazz performers now receiving any notice. They are being treated as such a novelty that it's becoming difficult to remember that jazz was once assumed to require the vigor of youth.

For a reminder of the way things used to be, I recently reread an essay called "Why Do They Age So Badly?," by the late French critic and composer Andre Hodeir. (Written sometime in the 1950s, it was included in Hodeir's 1962 collection Toward Jazz, translated by Noel Burch.) Lamenting that what lay ahead for any jazz musician who reached middle age having achieved some degree of recognition was "an unremitting decline, an inevitable subsidence into complacency," Hodeir argued that "jazz has one thing in common with sports: it requires its performers . . . to be in first-rate physical condition." But whereas "the aging athlete is obliged to retire" (Hodeir's italics), jazz audiences permit older musicians to go on suiting up, as it were, until they drop. Hodeir cited as an example of fans reluctant to "repudiate their traditional idols" a Parisian audience that responded worshipfully to the trumpeter Roy Eldridge in 1950, "when he was already well on the decline."

In 1950 Eldridge was all of thirty-nine, with at least twenty-five more years of crackling solos ahead of him. What has aged badly is Hodeir's arguments, although in fairness it should be acknowledged that he was one of the first to write about jazz with such candor and that his essay dates from a period when bebop--then considered the ultimate in modernity--must have made the mature accomplishments of swing-era veterans like Eldridge seem a little passe. Reading "Why Do They Age So Badly?" in 1991, I find myself wondering what Hodeir would make of the alto saxophonist Benny Carter, who turned eighty-four last month, and whose powers as an improviser remain miraculously unimpaired.

The perseverance of elderly musicians is an open invitation to sentimentality, and Carter long ago reached the age at which an instrumentalist elicits admiration merely for playing, no matter how shakily. But I really do believe that Carter, who aside from Lionel Hampton is the last surviving major figure of the 1930s, is still making vibrant contributions to jazz six decades later. In so doing, he offers present-day audiences a singular thrill--the chance to look back on history as it continues to unfold.


CARTER has been around practically forever. Although the standard discographies show him to have made his recording debut with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra, in 1928, Carter himself remembers participating in a session with the blues singer Clara Smith four years earlier. His first recorded arrangement (of "P.D.Q. Blues," for Fletcher Henderson) was written in 1927, the same year he published his first composition ("Nobody Knows," co-written with Fats Waller). After working as a sideman with Henderson and Chick Webb, and serving as music director of McKinney's Cotton Pickers and leader of the Wilburforce Collegians, Carter formed the first of his own big bands in 1932.

These are dates that I have selected almost at random from the detailed chronology included in Morroe Berger, Edward Berget, and James Patrick's exhaustive two-volume Benny Carter: A Life in American Music (1982). Another piece of information might give a better sense of just how long Carter has been active in music. The album usually cited as his best is Further Definitions (MCA Impulse MCA5651), from 1961. It reunited him with his fellow saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, whose path had regularly crossed his over the decades, most notably with Henderson in the twenties and on the four titles they recorded together with the guitarist Django Reinhardt, in Paris in 1937. Two numbers were reprised from that 1937 session, with Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse taking the places of the French saxophonists Andre Ekyan and Alix Combelle. For the album Carter, whose trademark as an arranger is his rich saxophone voicings, also orchestrated Hawkins's emblematic 1939 solo on "Body and Soul" for four horns, and paid homage to Duke Ellington and Ben Webster by including the famous sax-section chorus from their 1940 recording of "Cotton Tail." Further Definitions was hailed as a latter-day triumph for Carter upon its release, almost thirty years ago.

Carter has long inspired something approaching awe in his fellow musicians. He surpassed even Johnny Hodges as the primary influence on the alto saxophone before the arrival of Charlie Parker, in the 1940s. But he also plays credible trumpet (Dizzy Gillespie, who was in his brass section as a young musician, once said of him that "he was always the best trumpet player in his band"), and he might have become one of the greatest of jazz clarinetists had he not abandoned the clarinet in 1946.

Although he is one of only a handful of musicians to have left a mark on jazz as both an improviser and an orchestrator (Cab Callowa, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw were among the rival bandleaders who played his arrangements in the thirties and forties), Carter never succeeded in keeping an orchestra together for very long, and finally disbanded for good in 1946. What makes this so surprising is that Carter's first band enjoyed the services of Sid Catlett, perhaps the greatest of big-band drummers, and that Gillespie, Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Miles Davis were Carter band members at one time or another. It probably also hindered Carter that he was in Europe from 1935 to 1938, when America was catching swing fever, and in Hollywood, writing music for movies and TV, for much of three decades, after playing on the soundtrack of and helping to orchestrate the music for Stormy Weather in 1943.

Carter was underutilized and perhaps racially typecast by the studios: although he worked on more than two dozen theatrical films, including An American in Paris, The Sun Also Rises, The Guns of Navarone, and Red Sky at Morning, his only complete scores were those for A Man Called Adam, a 1966 jazz movie starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and Buck and the Preacher, a 1972 western with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Carter's best work for TV was his music for some thirty-five episodes of the crime series M Squad in the late 1950s. The four selections from M Squad included on All of Me (Bluebird 3000-2-RB), a recent reissue, demonstrate Carter's ability to produce idiomatically convincing jazz within the framework of TV-genre conventions.

Carter again became a full-time jazz musician around 1976. His stepped-up pace since then, in both playing and composing, has created the happy illusion that he is playing better than ever, and we have had more opportunities to hear him. Everyone I know who writes about jazz seems to have his own favorite Carter solo recorded since that time. Mine is his virtuoso turn on the standard "Lover Man," from his otherwise uneventful 1985 album A Gentleman and His Music (Concord Jazz CCD4285). In addition to being the recent solo that best demonstrates Carter's undiminished instrumental command, it is also the one that best illustrates his confident embrace of contemporary rhythmic values. Hearing "Lover Man," you know at once you're listening to Benny Carter, thanks to that enviably urbane intonation of his (which Hodeir, ever the nay-sayer, once characterized as "effeminate") and to that rococo approach to harmony he once shared with Coleman Hawkins. Still, this isn't a solo you could imagine Carter playing fifty or even twenty years ago, because his asymmetrical double-time phrasing is so modern in conception--it's just short of abstract, despite his fealty to the melody.


LATE last summer Carter shared a bill with the vibraphonists Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson at Lincoln Center, just up the block from where the apartment house he lived in as a child once stood; the area was called San Juan Hill in those days, and it was known as a rough neighborhood. Jackson and Hutcherson each played a set accompanied by just a rhythm section; then they joined Carter and a big band for the premiere of a suite called "Good Vibes," which Lincoln Center had commissioned from Carter for this occasion. Although both the featured soloists interpreted Carter's new music with relish, neither paid him the courtesy of performing even one of his tunes during the first half.

In a way, the evening was typical. The only Carter tune you're ever likely to hear during a jam session is "When Lights Are Low," which musicians usually know not from Carter's recordings of it (the first was with the singer Elisabeth Welch, in 1936, and the most famous was with Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, three years later) but from the version Miles Davis recorded in 1953, without Carter's elegant bridge. For that matter, Carter himself is frequently guilty of not featuring enough of his own tunes when he plays nightclubs and festivals.

I asked about this when I spoke with him by telephone in his home in southern California late last year. "That's been because I've always felt that when people come to hear me, they want to hear me play songs with which they're already familiar," he told me in a tone intended to communicate that this policy was the result of practicality not undue modesty. "But you know, somebody else once asked me the same question, and I told him that I don't play many of my own tunes because the audience wouldn't know them. He pointed out that they never will get to know them if I don't play them. But I have started traveling with lead sheets of my tunes for the musicians I might play with who don't know them."

The proof of Carter's genius as a composer can be found on Central City Sketches (Musicmasters CIJD 60126X), featuring Carter with the American Jazz Orchestra, a New York repertory ensemble directed by the pianist John Lewis. This includes flawless performances of Carter compositions ranging in vintage from "Blues in My Heart" (1931), which would have been a perfect vehicle for Jackson at Lincoln Center, to the title suite, which Carter completed just in time for a concert he played with the AJO at Cooper Union a week or so before the recording session, in 1987. In addition to reviving interest in Carter, the Cooper Union concert, which was talked about for months afterward, supplied a rationale for the emerging jazz-repertory movement: it called attention to still timely masterpieces that weren't likely to be heard in concert unless someone made a special effort to perform them.

Marian McPartland Plays the Benny Carter Songbook (Concord Jazz CCD4412), with Carter augmenting the pianist McPartland's trio on six of eleven tracks, nicely complements Central City Sketches, featuring as it does informal interpretations of such outstanding Carter tunes as "When Lights Are Low" (as on the disc with the AJO, the bridge is restored); "Lonely Woman," sung by Peggy Lee in 1947 and not to be confused with pieces of the same name by Ornette Coleman and Horace Silver; "Only Trust Your Heart," a bossa nova introduced by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto in the 1964 TV film The Hanged Man; and "Doozy," a sinuous blues that lives up to its name, first recorded on Further Definitions and performed twice on Central City Sketches.


CARTER now records so regularly that it has become possible to pick and choose among his albums. All That Jazz Live at Princeton (Musicmasters j059-2C), his latest, recorded in concert last year at Princeton University, where he frequently conducts master classes, suffers from a humdrum selection of tunes--nothing new by Carter, who seems unfamiliar with the chord changes to Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack" and Clifford Brown's "Blues Walk"--and unrewarding vocals by Carter, the trumpeter Clark Terry, and a glib singer named Billy Hill. (Hill was once a member of the pop group the Essex, whose delightful "Easier Said Than Done" reached No. 1 in 1963.) Carter is the only reason for hearing The Return of Mel Powell (Chiaroscuro CR[D] 301), which was recorded aboard the S.S. Norway in 1987. Powell, who once played piano in Benny Goodman's big band and who last year won a Pulitzer for "serious" composition, sounds as though he's slumming here, or as though he thinks it's still 1938. His choppy, foursquare rhythm inhibits Carter, who seems more in his element when surrounded by relative modernists than he does in the company of musicians from his own era.

Along with Central City Sketches, the plums in Carter's recent discography are My Man Benny--My Man Phil (Musicmasters :036-2C), from 1989, on which he piques the alto saxophonist Phil Woods into some beautifully animated playing, and Over the Rainbow (Musicmasters 5015-2C), from 1988, which rivals even Further Definitions in demonstrating Carter's unparalleled skill at writing for saxophones. The most irresistible of the eight performances on Over the Rainbow is the standard "Out of Nowhere." After individual choruses by Carter and fellow saxophonists Frank Wess, Herb Geller, Jimmy Heath, and Joe Temperley (plus a brief spot by the pianist Richard Wyands), Carter leads the saxophones through a speedy series of harmonic variations so full of swagger that at first I assumed I was hearing an orchestration of the solo Coleman Hawkins played on this tune with Carter and Django Reinhardt in 1937.

Carter recorded for a variety of labels, large and small, in the 1930s, and this might explain why--with the exception of a no-longer available boxed set in the Time-Life Giants of Jazz series--no comprehensive survey of his early recordings has ever been issued by an American company. Before berating American companies for not giving us seminal Benny Carter in chronological order, it's good to remember that these performances are still protected by copyright in the United States, though they no longer are in Europe. Classics--a French label that is distributed here by Qualiton Imports (24-02 40th Avenue, Long Island City, MY 11101)--has come to the rescue with five volumes (so far) of Benny Carter and His Orchestra (Classics 522, 530, 541, 552, and 579).

In addition to all of Carter's big-band sides through 1940, these splendidly remastered compact discs include his work with the Chocolate Dandies, a small, studio-only group drawn from the ranks of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and other big bands, and the twelve ahead-of-their-time-and-then-some performances recorded in 1933 by the Ellington-smitten Irish composer Spike Hughes and "His Negro Orchestra," which was actually Carter's big band augmented by such star soloists as Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen. Carter isn't extensively featured on the material by Hughes, but his band distinguishes itself in interpreting Hughes's ambitious scores, and both "Noctourne" and "Music at Midnight" offer striking examples of Carter's abilities as a clarinetist.

Reissues like these usually put elder musicians in the hopeless position of competing with their past accomplishments. Carter actually seems to be gaining on himself as the years roll by. In baseball it's possible to chart the progress of a Darryl Strawberry or a Roger Clemens by measuring his record against that of a Willie Mays or a Sandy Koufax at a similar stage in his career. In jazz, too, we can measure the accomplishments of Wynton Marsalis as he nears thirty by comparing them with the accomplishments of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis at the same point. We can compare Sonny Rollins at sixty with Coleman Hawkins at that age. But against what other jazz octogenarian can we measure Benny Carter? There has never been anyone like him.


Copyright © 1991 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1991; "Better With Age"; Volume 268, No. 4; pages 106-109.

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