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Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs

Less a musical offering than a visual tribute to the long, achievement-filled career of alto saxophonist, trumpeter, bandleader and composer-arranger Benny Carter, Symphony in Riffs follows his ascent from fairly humble beginnings in New York City through work with swing bands to fame and wealth in the Hollywood film and TV studios.

This 1989 film by Harrison Engle, with narration by actor Burt Lancaster, is a 58-minute biographical journey in black-and- white and color film clips, as well as still photography. The mostly self-taught Carter, who died in July 2003 at age 95, had a career spanning eight decades, with early notice at the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater in New York in the ’20s, an expatriate stint in Paris and London in the ’30s, more band work upon his return to the U.S., then a move to Hollywood in the ’40s.

Carter, clearly a genteel and cultured individual, is given honor in filmed commentary from trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, singers Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald, fellow studio composer Quincy Jones, pianist Andre Previn and alto saxophonist David Sanborn, as well as critic Leonard Feather. In addition to musical bits and pieces behind Lancaster’s narration, there are nightclub segments with Carter playing alto sax and trumpet in the company of pianist James Williams and bassist Lisle Atkinson. There’s also a recording session with tenorists Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess, among others. And there’s a brief scene with Carter playing alto at a nightclub in the film The Snows of Kilimanjaro with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.

Although some musicians have criticized the erudite Carter’s alto work as ricky-tick, his elegant style can be seen as an alternative to that of the urbane sound of his peer, Johnny Hodges. In an era of discrimination, the well-spoken Carter’s quiet demeanor masked great skill and a determination that broke down numerous barriers. While a bit short on music, this DVD does much to reveal the life of this justly honored world citizen.

Originally Published