Grammy Award-winning jazz composer, saxophonist and bandleader Benny Carter died Saturday, July 12 in Los Angeles, California at age 95. He had been hospitalized for two weeks with bronchitis and other problems. Admired for his skills on numerous instruments, Carter was among those who pioneered the sound of modern jazz. His well-known compositions include Blues In My Heart and When Lights Are Low. Carter's career began while President Calvin Coolidge held office during the 1920s and it was a career marked by many accomplishments.
For more than six decades, Benny Carter entertained audiences with a blend of swing, be-bop and blues. A prolific composer and arranger, Carter was equally proficient on the saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and piano. On occasion, he even proved himself a fine vocalist. According to Carter, finding the heart of the song was his most important musical goal.
"To some extent I'm what some people would call a melodist. I have a great regard for the melody that composers have struggled many moments or hours over," he said. "When I like a melody, I like to state it every once in awhile, even though I'm improvising on the theme."
Born in New York City on August 8, 1907, Bennett Lester Carter first learned to play piano and trumpet under the guidance of his mother and several neighborhood music teachers. After taking up the alto saxophone in his teens, he landed work in bands led by June Clark and Earl "Fatha" Hines. In 1930, he performed in The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and later formed his own group with such swing players as Ben Webster, Chu Berry and Teddy Wilson.
In 1935, Carter moved to London, England, where he directed the BBC Dance Orchestra. While in Europe, he broke new ground by leading his own interracial, multi-national band. In 1942, he returned to the U.S., and settled permanently in Los Angeles.
As one of the first African-American musicians to earn Hollywood recognition, Carter wrote television and film scores. In addition to arranging for Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, he turned out an impressive collection of jazz albums with both big and small bands. Although free time was scarce, Carter said his most precious moments were spent composing.
"I'm just doing what I feel comes naturally and what occurs to me at the moment without any aforethought, you might say," he said. "Sometimes I lie in bed and think of things and I'll get up and write something down. Or sometimes I'll just be sitting at the piano working on one thing, and in fooling with the keyboards, I'll just accidentally hit upon something else. And something [a harmonic] may suggest something to me. I don't know, just different things."
Benny Carter remained active as a bandleader, soloist and jazz educator. His long career was an inspiration to many, including jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Jamal, who first performed with Carter in 1955, believes composing was his greatest gift.
"His impact is monumental," Mr. Jamal said. "Benny is not only a great player, he's also a monumental writer. He used to write for the Hit Parade in New York many, many years ago. So his history as a writer is unlike any other."
Although he is best remembered for his versatility and originality as a musician, Carter was often recognized as the principal architect of the big band swing style. His arrangement of Fletcher Henderson's 1930 recording Keep A Song In Your Soul, with its distinctive phrasing and color, is considered a landmark in the development of jazz arranging. Carter's influence as a composer was often compared to the late Duke Ellington. The soft-spoken Carter accepted such accolades graciously.
"Well, I don't know whether I deserve it or not. I'm flattered and honored that I'm considered close to him even," he said. "I have no thoughts about that really other than I think that he was a great composer and everything that he's done still lives and sounds wonderful."
Benny Carter was presented a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1987. He won two more Grammy Awards in the 1990s. In 2000, he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.
One of Carter's last albums was Harlem Renaissance, a collection of jazz standards and originals recorded live with his big band and the 27-piece Rutgers University Orchestra.